Felicity Barringer for The New York Times:
FRESNO, Calif. — The small prefab office of Arthur & Orum, a well-drilling outfit hidden in the almond trees and grapevines south of Fresno, has become a magnet for scores of California farmers in desperate need of water to sustain their crops. Looking at binders of dozens of orders for yet-to-be-drilled wells, Steve Arthur, a manager, said, “We’ve got more stacked up than we’ll do before the end of the year.”
California’s vicious, prolonged drought, which has radically curtailed most natural surface water supplies, is making farmers look deeper and deeper underground to slake their thirst. This means the drought is a short-term bonanza for firms like Arthur & Orum, which expects to gross as much as $3 million this year.
But in a drought as long and severe as the current one, over-reliance on groundwater means that land sinks, old wells go dry, and saltwater invades coastal aquifers. Aquifers are natural savings accounts, a place to go when the streams run dry. Exhaust them, and the $45 billion annual agricultural economy will take a severe hit, while small towns run dry.
Yet for a century, farmers believed that the law put control of groundwater in the hands of landowners, who could drill as many wells as deeply as they wanted, and court challenges were few.
That just changed. The California Legislature, in its closing hours on Friday, passed new and sweeping groundwater controls. The measures do not eliminate private ownership, but they do establish a framework for managing withdrawals through local agencies.
It all happened after many farmers slowly rethought their priorities, as they surveyed a landscape of over-pumping, dropping water levels and multimillion-dollar groundwater sales. Ceding some control of groundwater management to local water agencies, an idea long opposed, became palatable enough to win over a significant share of farmers. It helped that the controls were matched by the state’s commitment to expanding existing water storage.
But the new legal framework not only empowers local control of groundwater, it sets out another requirement: When localities fail to manage their aquifers sustainably, the state can step in. Water managers in 126 of more than 500 groundwater basins — the ones designated high or medium priority — must develop groundwater-management plans by 2020 or give way to the state.
Article continues here.
Photo credit: Sadaf Syed for Al Jazeera America