Guest commentary by Ruth Martinez (Ducor Water Board Member) and Roger Dickinson (Co-author of SGMA)
The California town of Ducor, with a population of just over 600 residents, is located 35 miles north of Bakersfield. For many years, Ducor’s residents, nearly all of whom speak Spanish as their first language, were forced to drink and bathe with water polluted by cancer-causing nitrates and other contaminants from agricultural runoff. Then in 2016, the Tulare County community completed a public well that was 2,000 feet deep and cost millions of public dollars. Ducor finally had a steady source of clean water, until last year, when a new agricultural well was drilled across the street from the public well, threatening to contaminate or otherwise disrupt the community’s water supply.
It’s a new year and another drought, and Ducor’s families, as many Californians, once again find themselves scrambling to secure safe, clean drinking water.
In 2014, state lawmakers responded to decades of sinking land across the Central Valley by regulating groundwater for the first time. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) aimed to ensure that all water being pulled out of the earth would be replaced, and set a date of 2040 to return California’s water basins to this natural balance.
But SGMA did not limit new wells going in, which is why a public well that supplies water to Ducor residents can be threatened by the arrival of a private well just 250 feet away. Unfortunately, these stories are common throughout the Central Valley. Once rival corporate wells are drilled, small communities have little recourse to protect their water supply. Private wells are also at risk of disruption by corporate wells due to the shallow depths private wells are typically drilled. Deepening a private well is not a feasible solution when costs can start at $30,000.
On March 28th, Governor Newsom signed an executive order intended to protect the majority of Californians who rely on groundwater for their water supply.
We applaud Governor Newsom’s commitment to bolstering conservation efforts. But the Governor’s order is only a temporary solution.
Executive orders may be overturned by the current Governor or a coming one. But there is a permanent solution to protect the water California’s families need, AB 2201.
Assemblymember Steve Bennett has introduced the Community Drinking Water Protection Act to make sure new wells can only be permitted after proving that they will not harm drinking water or otherwise obstruct sustainable groundwater management. If the law passes, groundwater sustainability agencies will be required to review all well-drilling permit applications and consider whether they align with the sustainability plan for their basin. The law would allow community members to more easily learn about proposed wells that could threaten their water supply through required notifications, and residents could influence permitting decisions through 30-day public comment periods.
As the drought dries out lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, thousands of deep agricultural wells are drilled to make up for the contracting water supply. This trend will worsen as climate change reduces snowpack and further dehydrates California’s aquifers. Permits for new wells are determined by county governments, which are not required to consider groundwater sustainability when granting them. This is why over 6,200 new agricultural wells have been drilled in California since 2014 — in the midst of the worst prolonged drought in 1,200 years.
Had AB 2201 been in place just one year ago, the groundwater sustainability agency serving Ducor could have denied the permit application from the farm across the street from the community’s well. At the very least, the GSA could have informed the community that its well was being disrupted and forced the applicant to pay for any damage done to the community.
Before the state can achieve sustainable groundwater management AB 2201 serves to strengthen local control of groundwater resources and move us towards the true intent behind SGMA. AB 2201 is needed to help Californians maintain safe, reliable drinking water.