Factions debate state's role in water monitoring

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Jim Browbeck of the environmental group Aqualliance listens to a presentation on ground water during a seminar Dec. 16 in Corning, Calif. Brobeck is concerned about a depleted ground-water basin in the northern Sacramento Valley.

'If you can't have water you can't grow a crop and you can't make a living'

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

CORNING, Calif. -- The debate over what to do about declining ground-water supplies took center stage during a recent water seminar here.

In California, 30 percent of total water usage is provided by ground water, making the Golden State the biggest user of ground water in the nation, and 43 percent of the state's residents obtain drinking water from aquifers, said Kelly Staton, a senior engineering geologist for the state Department of Water Resources.

Studies show that water tables in the Sacramento Valley dropped an average of 5 feet from 2004 to 2010, although they've gained back about 2 feet since last year, Staton explained.

"Compared to 2004, we haven't quite recharged yet," she told about 100 farmers, environmentalists and government officials during an all-day workshop offered by the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Environmentalists such as Marty Dunlap of the Chico, Calif.-based Citizens Water Watch wondered aloud whether the aquifers will ever fully recharge. They blame what they see as overuse of wells for endangering the creeks and trees that rely on the aquifers to thrive.

"I'm just wondering who's going to step in when ground water is critical in Northern California," Dunlap said. "It seems like nobody is really taking responsibility."

The exchanges highlight what may be the next key battleground in California's ongoing water conflicts, as conservationists seek to have ground water regulated as it is in other states.

Already, the Environmental Law Foundation and other groups are suing the State Water Resources Control Board and Siskiyou County over well irrigation they say is depleting water for salmon in the Scott River. The suit could affect farmers' use of ground water throughout the state, Siskiyou County Supervisor Marcia Armstrong has said.

Tehama County Supervisor Bob Williams, an oat and alfalfa hay producer, said there's a "quiet movement" in the state to have ground water included under California's Public Trust Doctrine, which applies to surface water and migratory wildlife.

"There are folks who'd like to see California become like other states where the state has control over all water ... and in dry years can deny usage," Williams said during the workshop. "As a farmer, and I know there are a lot of farmers here, I know if you can't have water you can't grow a crop and you can't make a living.

"We need to pay attention, we need to be educated and we need folks to talk to their local leaders and help them understand ... both sides of the issue," he said.

Many factors can affect local and regional ground-water levels, including crop or other land-use changes, bloom and harvest seasons, changes in irrigation methods and, of course, precipitation, Staton explained.

Ground water will be included in the next version of a program regulating contaminants such as nitrates, which come from agricultural applications, said Ben Letton of the Redding, Calif.-based Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. In addition, some counties have implemented ground-water monitoring ordinances.

But the efforts need more teeth to them, asserted Dunlap.

"It seems to me that it's not very prudent to wait for an emergency situation to see that counties have the authority to make sure their ecosystems are protected," she said.

Online

California Department of Water Resources: http://www.water.ca.gov/

State Water Resources Control Board: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/

Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov/rwqcb5/

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