Editorial: Too many new straws in California’s groundwater milkshake

It wasn’t that long ago that increasingly arid California seemed as watery as a wet sponge. At the time the state became part of the U.S., Tulare Lake was the largest body of freshwater west of the Great Lakes, and winter flooding made it even larger. In particularly wet years, when it overflowed its banks and joined with Kern Lake and Buena Vista Lake, it would have been possible to sail a boat from what is now Interstate 5 eastward to the Sierra foothills, and from Bakersfield to Fresno.

The change isn’t only because of warmer weather. Agricultural growth drained the lakes and dammed the rivers that fed them. Tulare Lake was gone by the 20th century, except for some occasional wet winter reappearances.

The land underneath the dry lake beds, as well as much of the rest of the Central Valley, remained a sort of damp sponge or, rather, a collection of sponges, containing groundwater that had been there for millennia, constantly replenished by Sierra snowmelt.

But much of that water was drained away as well, especially by unlimited pumping during droughts of 2007-09 and 2012-16 in which surface water historically fed by Sierra snowmelt dried up.

Meanwhile, as the porous geological layers that once held primordial water are depleted, they eventually collapse under the weight of heavier ground above them. Once that happens, no amount of future precipitation will ever plump them up again, at least not to the same level. In much of the valley — and similarly, in parts of Southern California that also have been mined or drilled for groundwater — the surface is sinking.

In 2014, a package of bills collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act put in place a framework for measuring and extracting groundwater, presumably to keep it from running out. Yet in the years since its passage, there has been more drilling and pumping, and consequently more depletion, than ever. An analysis by The Times last year found dropping groundwater levels left more than 1,000 wells dry.

Still, counties keep issuing permits and large agricultural interests keep drilling new holes and draining the wells on which neighboring residents and farmers rely. It’s reminiscent of a notorious line from the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood,” a fictionalized depiction of the early 20th century race to drill oil wells in a part of California very close to what were once the shores of Tulare Lake. It doesn’t matter if you have the glass, Daniel Day Lewis’ character said, if I have the straw. “I drink your milkshake,” he said. Then, the “milkshake” was petroleum. Today it is water.

Earlier this year, with the current drought declaration, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order prohibiting public and local agencies from issuing permits for new wells absent written verification from the local groundwater authority that the drilling is in accord with the sustainability plan. Astonishingly, that common-sense procedure was left out of the 2014 legislation.

The order plugs a gaping hole in the law, but only temporarily. The executive order will likely expire with a single wet winter — which might provide relief from the toughest residential water restrictions, but wouldn’t do much to replenish the groundwater basins’ capacity. California’s increasing aridity is likely to remain, so it’s essential to fix the 2014 groundwater law permanently. AB 2201, which is now in the Senate after passing out of the Assembly, would do the job.

Opponents claim the bill goes against the spirit of the current law, which was crafted to ensure local management.

But the bill wouldn’t change that, given that groundwater agencies, which would do the verification, are created by local agencies and staffed and managed locally. What opponents might really fear is that the bill would make new wells more costly to drill by making their effect on the local aquifers more evident.

Making water extraction more responsible and equitable is precisely the point. California has one big but shrinking milkshake that should not be exploited solely based on who has the longest straw.

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