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California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water

Some addresses may be hidden as California well reports become public

Jorge Vargas drills a well at a farm in Chowchilla in 2014. Reports that water well drillers file with the state are set to become public under a bill signed into law this week.
Jorge Vargas drills a well at a farm in Chowchilla in 2014. Reports that water well drillers file with the state are set to become public under a bill signed into law this week. | Scott Smith Associated Press file

By Ryan Sabalow
rsabalow@sacbee.com

After more than six decades of secrecy, the reports that water well drillers file with the state are set to become public under a bill signed into law this week.

But because of privacy concerns, it’s still not clear whether the public will get to see the precise locations of the thousands of wells that pull water out of the ground to irrigate farms and supply drinking water.

This week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 83, a trailer bill attached to the state budget. It reverses a ban on releasing what are known as well logs to anyone but the well’s owners, government officials and those cleaning up toxic spills. Drilling companies have to file the reports when they create new wells. The reports detail the composition of the subterranean layers the drillers encountered and how far down they hit water.

Water scientists and advocates had long pushed for making the reports public, since they provide critical information about underground features and depth and quality of a water supply. The reports, they say, are even more important now as groundwater increasingly is being overtaxed amid years of drought. About 40 percent of California’s freshwater supply comes from underground sources – a percentage that’s growing as the state’s reservoirs shrivel.

California is the last Western state to make its well logs public. Some states, including Texas, even post them online.

The secrecy dates back to the late 1940s, when the state’s well drillers fought to protect prime drilling spots from competitors. The state keeps an estimated 800,000 logs. As water supplies have shrunk, even some well drillers have begun to argue they need to be made public – so they, too, can better understand the state’s aquifers, and where they can find clean water.

Not everyone in California was happy about the push to open the logs up, however. Some water agencies feared they could be used by terrorists to poison a city’s water supply. Farmers also expressed concern. Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said Friday that releasing the specific location of a farmer’s wells provides a “road map” for militant animal-rights activist saboteurs, metal thieves and water-waste wary neighbors who might switch off a farmer’s irrigation pumps without permission.

SB 83 appears to address at least some privacy concerns. It says the water agency must abide by the Information Practices Act of 1977, which prohibits the release of some types of personal information.

Eric Senter, a senior engineering geologist with the state Department of Water Resources, said Thursday that the names and addresses of well owners would be considered private under that provision, although the well’s location will be identified. So what if the owner’s address and the well’s location are the same? Senter said his agency’s attorneys are now trying to figure out what can legally be released.

“There’s a lot of nuances of how we’ll actually go about that while still protecting personal information,” he said Thursday.

Supporters of the law say they hope state water officials will tilt toward releasing as specific information as possible on where wells are located. But they acknowledge that a general description of a well’s location – rather than a specific address – can also help scientists.

Thomas Harter, a groundwater hydrologist at UC Davis, said underground aquifers can be huge and uniform, so it’s not always necessary to know a well’s exact location to get an accurate picture of what’s underground.

He said that depending on what’s being studied, approximations of up to a quarter mile from a well can still be helpful.

Debi Ores, attorney and legislative advocate for Visalia-based Community Water Center, agreed. She said that even without an exact location of some of the wells, the data in the reports will still be immensely useful in the quest to find clean drinking water.

“Even having an approximate location of where there’s a well drawing out safe water could help identify new well locations,” she said. “It’s a lot more than what we currently have.”

By JENNIFER MEDINA, JUNE 12, 2015


Agricultural fields in Thermal, Calif. The state is facing a prolonged drought that shows few signs of easing. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Farmers with rights to California water dating back more than a century will face sharp cutbacks, the first reduction in their water use since 1977, state officials announced Friday. The officials said that rights dating to 1903 would be restricted, and that such restrictions would grow as the summer months go on, with the state facing a prolonged drought that shows few signs of easing. “Demand in our key rivers systems are outstripping supply,” said Caren Trgovcich, the State Water Resources Control Board’s chief deputy director. “Other cuts may be imminent.”

It is too early to know the practical impact of the cuts, which prohibit farmers from taking surface water. State officials have warned of such curtailments for months, and many farmers and agricultural water districts prepared for them by increasing their reserves or digging new wells for groundwater.

Still, the dramatic move is a sign of how dire the drought has become, as the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range — which normally supplies water to the state through the summer months, as it melts — is at a historic low. Only once before in the state’s history have the most senior water rights been curtailed. But now, with the drought persisting into a fourth year, state officials say that more reductions for so-called senior water rights holders are nearly certain, and the need for additional cuts will be evaluated weekly.

The reductions announced Friday apply to more than 100 water right holders in the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds and delta whose claims to water came after 1903. While the cuts will fall primarily on farmers, some will affect small city and municipal agencies, as well as state agencies that supply water for agricultural and environmental use. Water can still be used for hydropower production, as long as the water is returned to rivers.

The restrictions could cause the widespread fallowing of cropland in areas that have so far been largely exempt from cutbacks. The impact is likely to be felt far more broadly than it was in the 1970s, because the state now has more authority to impose cuts and a greater ability to measure how water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is used.

“It’s going to be a different story for each of them and a struggle for each of them,” said Tom Howard, the executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, referring to the senior water rights holders. “Some are going to have to stop irrigating crops, and there are others who have storage or wells they can fall back on.”

But the situation could deteriorate further, Mr. Howard said. “By the time this year ends, it might be much more broad-based and deeper,” he said.

While officials have said for months that water for the senior rights holders — those at the front of the line — would be curtailed, they had repeatedly put off such a decision amid the cooler and wetter weather of the last several weeks.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown received repeated and intense criticism after he issued mandatory cuts on urban water use but exempted farmers. In a normal year, agriculture uses about 80 percent of the water consumed in the state. Farmers in the Central Valley have had their surface water allotment diminished or erased for the last several years, and instead have relied on water pumped from the ground.

Last month, the state reached an agreement with some farmers in the delta to voluntarily cut their use by 25 percent in exchange for a promise to not face more drastic cuts later during the growing season. Roughly half of the region’s 400 farmers eligible for the program signed on, according to state officials.

George Hartmann, a water rights lawyer who helped design the deal between state officials and the delta farmers, said that most growers had planned for such cuts.

“We all knew this was going to happen,” he said. “The state had made it very clear that was part of their plans, so I doubt people spent a lot of money planting for something they weren’t sure they could grow.” But the most important impact may be the precedent the state board is setting, said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Several lawyers have already indicated that they will take the fight to court, arguing that the state board does not have the right to curb rights that date to before 1914, when California first began regulating water diversions.

“Litigation will be filed,” Mr. Hartmann said, “and I think the state welcomes it, so that this is resolved once and for all.”

Some 620,000 acres of land are expected to be fallowed in California this year, primarily in the Central Valley, according to statewide agricultural groups. The state has roughly 7.5 million acres of farmland, and the cuts in surface water are being felt unevenly, depending on the source of water.

“With every turn of the screw as water supplies shrink, more people suffer,” Paul Wenger, the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement. “Water shortages undermine rural economies, both in the short term and the long term, and these additional shortages will spread that impact to more people in more places.”

Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research institute that focuses on the environment, said that the biggest challenge for state officials would come in enforcing the restrictions, along with the thousands of other curtailment orders that it issued to more than 9,000 junior water rights holders earlier this year.

“This is an indication of how broadly water is used in California,” Mr. Gleick said. “These curtailments are the next step in spreading the growing pain of the drought to a growing number of users, and it is going to get worse as the hot summer drags on.”