Groundwater is one of America’s most precious resources. The water that fills wells, stored naturally in underground aquifers, allowed vast cities to emerge and turned the nation into an agricultural powerhouse.
But the country’s stewardship of groundwater relies on a patchwork of state and local rules so lax and outdated that in many places, oversight is all but nonexistent, a New York Times investigation has found.
The federal government does not regulate groundwater extraction, so, as part of an investigative project, my colleagues asked officials in all 50 states detailed questions about how they tracked and regulated groundwater use.
“We found that protections for groundwater are very inconsistent across the country,” Delger Erdenesanaa, one of the Times reporters involved in the project, told me. “Even within individual states, groundwater rules can be very patchy or messy. What that means is states don’t have a good handle on how many wells they have or how much water people are pumping from aquifers.”
The jumble of regulations has fed an industry of lawyers and consultants who help big water users follow the rules — and also take advantage of them. “People are shopping around for where they can exploit groundwater,” Reba Epler, a lawyer who works on water-rights cases in Wyoming and New Mexico, told my colleagues.
You can read the Times investigation into the oversight of groundwater here.
Depleting groundwater has more serious consequences in an era of climate change. Heat, drought and erratic rainfall are making rivers and streams less reliable as water sources, while groundwater regulation in the United States is “Swiss cheese,” Dave Owen, a professor at U.C. Law San Francisco, told my colleagues.
California has made more efforts to protect groundwater than most other states. In 2014, state lawmakers passed a landmark groundwater management law that gives local agencies the power to limit usage of threatened aquifers. But the state is still working on putting those rules into effect.
In an average year in California, roughly 40 percent of the state’s water supply comes from groundwater. In a dry year, that can exceed 60 percent.
“Farming would not exist as we know it in California without the use of groundwater,” said Chris Scheuring, a water lawyer at the California Farm Bureau and a family farmer himself. Groundwater has helped much of the American West to become “marvelously productive,” he said, as the region is a dry landscape where farmers can’t rely on rainfall and surface water alone.
Scheuring told my colleagues that rain and surface water were like a checking account, and groundwater a savings account. Normally, you want to use your checking account and not dip into savings. But as the climate changes, people — particularly farmers — are dipping into our collective savings more and more.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Jorge Moreno, spokesman for California’s state parks department: Jorge recommends visiting Sonoma State Historic Park this fall:
“Nestled in downtown Sonoma, this park offers an enriching experience for history buffs and casual strollers. Within walking distance, you’ll discover three distinct sites. Start at the historic military barracks, a pivotal player in shaping the state’s history. Then, visit Mission San Francisco Solano, showcasing art and unique historical narratives. Conclude with a stroll through Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s home, where manicured gardens and autumn vines exude historical charm.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
I’m thinking about how Californians celebrate Thanksgiving. By the beach? With sourdough stuffing?
Email your Golden State Thanksgiving traditions to [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city in which you live.
And before you go, some good news
Communities across California will gather this week and through the weekend to celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11, honoring those who have served in the U.S. armed forces.
The holiday — first named Armistice Day for when the armistice ending World War I was signed on Nov. 11, 1918 — falls on Saturday this year. But Californians from the northern reaches of the Bay Area down to San Diego have already begun celebrations.
Residents of San Jose kicked off their festivities over the weekend with an event hosted by the Santa Clara County veteran services office that drew hundreds, including veterans from multiple generations. In the Bay Area, a packed schedule of community gatherings is planned for the coming days, including a gala in San Francisco on Thursday, followed by a Veterans Day parade in Petaluma and live music and dancing in Rohnert Park on Saturday. Across San Diego County, there are parades, ceremonies and a film screening planned throughout the weekend.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Maia Coleman and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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