Report: Groundwater overhaul could threaten drinking water for over 1 million valley residents

As drought sets in in the San Joaquin Valley, a new report warns of other circumstances that could result in the loss of drinking water for entire communities.

More than a million people in the valley could lose their public water over the next few decades under extensive groundwater legislation known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), according to the document released earlier. this month from the nonprofit Pacific Institute.

Signed into law in 2014, SGMA aims over the next two decades to reduce California’s groundwater deficit by balancing water pumped from the ground with the replenished amount. The groundwater overhaul called for the division of the state’s groundwater basins into hundreds of local boards of directors known as Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), each of which created their own. sustainability plan to visibly meet the needs of all its water users.

The report argues, however, that many of these plans will leave more vulnerable communities behind, all the more urgent because in 2012, former Governor Jerry Brown enacted the “human right to water”.

In their sustainability plans, each GSA is responsible for determining a “minimum threshold” groundwater level – essentially the depth to which groundwater can fall before “significant and unreasonable” impacts like dewatering begin to set in. produce. Among the 31 valley sustainability plans examined in the report, minimum thresholds average around 100 feet below groundwater levels before the drought in 2019. Although many wells serving agricultural interests and major cities extend deeper into the aquifer, the report found that many public wells do not go deep enough underground to stay above these minimum thresholds.

“What is really concerning here is that over 40 percent of small water systems with one or two wells will lose access to water if their groundwater levels drop,” says Darcy Bostic, Pacific Institute research associate and author of the report.

Unlike domestic wells that can serve one household at a time, which many owners also fear being left behind by the SGMA, the Bostic wells studied are located in community water systems, each serving hundreds to dozens. thousands of inhabitants. . Of the 214 valley water supply systems she studied, she estimates that more than half of them would be at risk of losing water in 30% or more of their wells, which could threaten the water supply for the whole community.

“The idea is that we never reach these levels,” says Bostic. “But what we’re finding is that bad things happen long before you hit those minimum threshold water levels.”

Additionally, according to the report, these threatened wells are more likely to be located in communities of color and with average annual incomes below $ 75,000 than in whiter, wealthier communities. Vulnerable wells are concentrated in Tulare and Kern counties.

Bostic says it’s too early to predict when the wells might run dry, especially given the current drought conditions, but there is probably still time for local groundwater agencies to help their communities survive the drought. falling water levels. “It would be nice for them to do that analysis, use whatever well data sets they have, create new ones, to really understand the impacts, and then talk with those water systems and figure out what. they could do, ”she said.

While communities with vulnerable water systems are likely to deepen their wells – assuming they can afford the costs and long wait times required for high-demand well drilling services – the report suggests that other solutions would be more sustainable, including creating recharge basins to replenish underground aquifers and consolidating smaller community systems with larger, more robust systems nearby. “Digging deeper straws is not a long-term solution,” says Bostic. “You have to stabilize the groundwater levels at some point. “

The water resources department is currently reviewing plans for the state’s roughly 300 GSAs, many of which were owed to the state in early 2020. Bostic hopes the agency will take into account the human right to water beforehand. to approve these plans. .

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