Monday, July 8, 2024






No one ever explained why the so-called Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 allowed 26 years – until 2040 – before all users of California’s ever-smaller groundwater supplies would have to meter their wells.


Meanwhile, two straight winters of record-level rain and snow have not solved the problem of aquifer depletion. Sure, groundwater supplies ticked slightly upward this spring, after massive downpours filled the state’s rivers and reservoirs and piled snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains.


But the groundwater increase was pretty slim, about 8.7 million acre feet of water was replaced over the two years. One acre foot is the amount of water need to cover an acre of ground to the one-foot level.


        That hasn't even begun restoring land levels in the Central Valley. The same old irrigation pipes and water lines that stood several feet above ground in many parts of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys in 2014 still stand tall.


        But there is some progress aside from those almost 9 million acre feet of liquid now stored underground. Increasingly, wells on private property and those operated by water districts are being metered, with many owners paying fees to the state for using a supply they once could waste, but now is beginning to be treated properly as a rare public resource.


        That’s what five or six years of drought will do to state policy. Still, no one knows precisely what portion of California wells are now metered.


        For sure, it’s difficult to track water loss. For example, the owner of a 100-foot-deep well can have no idea how much the aquifer below their land might be reduced when the nearest neighbor taps into the same aquifer with a far more costly to drill 300-foot well. For sure, since water flows downward, the owner of the deeper well can grab more water than whoever owns the shallower one. But no one can see it happening through the hundreds of feet of dirt and rock between the well bottom and the ground surface.


        It’s also impossible for anyone to know exactly how much water is actually available in the state. Yes, the Department of Water Resources tries to track this, but well metering is far from universal and the actual amount of water in California’s 4,000-plus miles of irrigation canals is also uncertain because many irrigation canals are on private land.


        But UC Davis experts estimated last year that California loses 63 billion gallons of water yearly to evaporation from canals. That’s probably a lowball guess, too, with many irrigation canals unmapped.


        Just what this can mean was revealed last spring in a Fresno County courtroom, where the former general manager of the Panoche Water District, which serves much of the land on both sides of Interstate 5 in the western San Joaquin Valley, pled guilty to stealing water from the government and selling it to farmers and other water districts.


        Dennis Falaschi admitted finding an abandoned water pipe connected to the Delta-Mendota Canal that was leaking into a nearby ditch. Rather than fixing the leak, he and other Panoche employees set up the pipe to be opened and closed at will and took an unspecified amount of unmetered water.


        That could not have lasted very long if anyone knew how much water the canal carries at any particular time. Which implies that metering water wells is not enough; tracking of supplies should also start on at least the major canals of both the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, which includes the Delta-Mendota Canal.


        Perhaps this kind of water crookedness is one reason big corporate farmers resisted metering for decades.


        The 2040 deadline for all wells to be metered seemed a long way off when the law setting that date passed 10 years ago, and it still does.


        Which makes it about time politicians from the governor on down stop bragging on how beneficial the existing law has been and get on with passing a much tougher measure that might actually bring both honesty and equity to California’s water scene,



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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