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Serving: West

California drains lakes as rains fail to arrive

Tim Hearden Water released from Shasta Dam
Water is released from Shasta Dam in Northern California.
Commentary: The practice of draining California reservoirs by rote starting Oct. 1 needs to be revisited

The practice of draining California reservoirs by rote starting Oct. 1 needs to be revisited given the state's refusal to store up water for farms and cities.

Granted, there's still a few months remaining to our yet-to-arrive rainy season, but with every passing dry day in the West we're one day closer to more drought and draconian water curtailments.

The back-to-back wet years we just experienced suggest we might not want to bank on a third season of the kind of rain and snow that can quickly fill our lakes and reservoirs. Meanwhile, we continue to pour fresh water into the Pacific Ocean at an unsustainable rate.

Speaking of sustainability, the plans required under the State Groundwater Management Act come due in January, and if the meeting I recently attended is any indication the numbers may be much worse than first predicted. Worse yet, these reports will be more in line with what we think we know, rather than what we know for certain.

Fresno, Calif., water attorney Lauren Layne said California's legislative move to preserve the state's aquifers was not based on science or careful, calculated study. Instead, Sacramento's

knee jerk reaction to groundwater over pumping became an unfunded mandate that forces local agencies to find a difficult solution to California's continued refusal to collect and store fresh water for farms and cities.

While countries like Denmark and states like Arizona first set out to study their water resources before enacting law to ensure sustainable supplies of water for human use, California did the opposite. It wrote a law to require groundwater sustainability without bothering to define the term "sustainable", then ordered local agencies to find a solution. Paying for it would be just another challenge as the Legislature failed to provide money for the local agencies they ordered into existence.

Michael Hagman, executive director of the East Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency, says those costs are steep. A one-time cost of about $1.5 million for his GSA to enact the mandated plan will be compounded by an annual cost of $850,000 to implement it.

Local agencies can assess property to cover these costs, but only after securing landowner permission. The state didn't write the same rules for itself. Should California decide a GSA plan to reach sustainability is insufficient, it has the right to take over that region's water supply and tax residents whatever it chooses to implement it.

All this portends a significant fallowing of arable land in California. Estimates currently peg agricultural land retirements could reach one million acres, based on the need to curb upwards of two million-acre feet of groundwater pumping each year.

California's continued refusal to collect and store additional fresh water for farms and cities, thereby returning California to its pre-industrial condition, will surely compound the state's ability to collect taxes as businesses dry up and property values decline.

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