Monday, December 15, 2014


By Patricia McBroom

        “Picture a pasture open to all,” where each herdsman strives to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons, an economist wrote almost 50 years ago. The rational choice for each individual is to add more animals to his herd without regard for the welfare of neighbors, and they all do that as they march inexorably toward mutual destruction – the “Tragedy of the Commons” as described by Garrett Hardin.
       “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” Hardin wrote in Science Magazine in 1968.                                                                               
Groundwater infiltrates subterranean rock, creating ancient reservoirs

Groundwater Commons    

         By far, the largest, most important commons in California is the water beneath our feet, and it is well on its way toward ruin. Large basins beneath the valley floors contain up to ten times the capacity of all the state's reservoirs put together (42 million acre feet). They are uncharted and boundless, subterranean streams of water flowing among the rocks in mysterious, unexpected ways from one region to another. And they are shrinking.
       In these years of drought, a giant sucking sound could be heard throughout the Central Valley as farmers pumped ever more water from the rocks beneath the earth.  The deeper the drill, the more ancient the layers. As they pumped, the land sank, along with the water table. In some areas of the San Joaquin Valley, only the biggest, wealthiest farmers could go deep enough to reach the water, and they did, leaving their neighbors literally in the dust with dry wells. Surface land in portions of the San Joaquin Valley sank by up to ten inches in just six months of this year, from May to October.
California has 515 groundwater basins (dark grey) in
ten hydrologic regions (outlined)   

     100 years of Exploitation

  Californians have been exploiting this commons for 100 years with precious few restrictions. There has been no statute governing its use. The only law that even affects groundwater pumping has come through case law when a property owner sued another for infringing on his rights. In these rare instances, judges have ruled that a property owner's right to pump water from the ground is not unlimited. Neighbors have rights as well – called correlative rights – and any one property owner can only take his fair share of the safe yield. But aside from this case law – of which the particulars are hard to determine (what is “safe yield” from an uncharted basin?) – the state has never imposed any limits on groundwater pumping.
       That is now changing.

First Statute to Govern Commons

       Next month, in January, the first written law governing this commons will go into effect, a statute requiring local groups to create sustainability agencies that will be charged with bringing depleted groundwater reservoirs into balance. If locals don't do it within the next few years, the state's water board has been empowered to come in and correct the balance. This is the first time in California's history that state authorities (other than courts) have given themselves the power to stop a property owner from taking water from beneath his land. But it will be a while before such power comes into play.
        The first opportunity to restrict pumping will be January of 2020, the deadline for passage of a local sustainability plan, said David Orth, manager of the Kings River Conservation District in the San Joaquin Valley and member of the powerful California Water Commission which will be making decisions on surface and groundwater storage with new state bond money approved by voters this year.
King's County's Dave Orth surveying a
recharge pond
       “A lot of things can happen in five years and that concerns me.... but this problem doesn't lend itself to a quick fix,”said Orth. “Any attempt tomorrow to restrict groundwater use, or even to set fees is likely to lead to a legal challenge. We have to be patient and recognize that it took 100 years to get here. It will take at least 20 to get out of it.”

Counties Stepping Up

       Meanwhile, county supervisors in the San Joaquin Valley are stepping into the breach to find various ways to halt the overdraft in their local groundwater basins. It's an urgent issue in counties like Merced, Stanislaus, Madera and Kern where lands are sinking and wells are running dry. Farmers are split, some opposing any restrictions; others calling for a moratorium on extraction.
       “Before, farmers were united against doing anything,” said Sarge Green, a program director from the California Water Institute at Fresno State, who is helping counties write groundwater ordinances. “Now they are being damaged by each other, and it has created a powerful incentive to do something. You have farmers saying, 'I don't want my neighbor to export water to another county or build a giant well that dries up mine'.”
       The issues are so contentious that a groundwater lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County had to be moved to Santa Clara County last month because no one was neutral in the county of origin. San Luis Obispo supervisors had passed a moratorium last year on new well drilling from the Paso Robles groundwater basin and the county is now being sued by 35 plaintiffs. They argue that no official can restrict their right to pump whatever they need.
Land subsidence from May to October, 2014, from Merced to Corcoran
shows deepest subsidence (red) near El Nido and Corcoran


 Local Variability  

 Elsewhere, Madera and Kern counties both considered a moratorium on pumping and rejected the idea. On the other side of the issue, Stanislaus County passed an ordinance restricting people from certain unincorporated areas from extracting water without a permit, while Merced County is considering a similar ordinance that would also restrict export of water from the county.
       Merced supervisor Diedre Kelsey said she became aware of the need for county action when she discovered that two individuals from her district were trying to pump local groundwater and sell it to buyers in another county. “We may need an immediate moratorium,” she said.
       The issues are complicated.

                Agony and Creativity in Reaching for Sustainability

       In Kings county, Orth and others are striving to create a sustainability plan, bringing farmers together to expand land devoted to recharge basins – areas where water can sit for several weeks to soak into the aquifer below. They have even tried flooding grape fields with 18 inches of water for two months during the dormant season. In that case, they came out ahead of the game with a bumper harvest. They're now looking at how long they can leave water standing in an orchard, anything to build the recharge capacity of an area where agriculture is outrunning available water.
       Orth estimates that the Kings area is farming about five percent more land than can be sustained with current water supplies. “Our strategy is to make every bit of that up with flood water (recharge) and voluntary water conservation to avoid land retirement,” he said, adding that the state as a whole is over-farming by a significant amount and will have to retire some agricultural land, if it cannot replenish the underground aquifers.
Merced County Supervisor Diedre Kelsey:  "We may need
a moratorium." Credit: Patricia McBroom
       Land retirement.
      “That's the word that everyone is trying to avoid,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Everybody is bending over backwards to not have that conversation (about land retirement) right now,” said Christian-Smith. Instead they are talking about moratoriums and ordinances, data and analysis:
       “ 'How much groundwater are we using? How much is being replenished naturally? What do we need to do to reach the level of sustainable yield? What does proportional reduction look like? Should we buy out landowners?' They have to figure out what has gone on so far.” said Christian-Smith.
        Can Californians learn to cooperate in this commons and not take more than their “fair share” of a “safe yield”? It's a good question. Some people may cooperate voluntarily; others will no doubt need the police powers of the state and counties before they stop taking their lion's share of precious water.
       Meanwhile, the cavalry is coming over the hill.