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On Water, Think Statewide

August 27, 2000

To the delight of California farmers, the state Supreme Court has upheld a Gold Rush-era law that allows them to pump as much water from the aquifers beneath their property as they can productively use. The initial interpretation of Monday's long-awaited decision involving the Mojave River Basin was that it now would be more difficult for growing cities to force farmers to share their well water supplies in times of shortage.

But on reflection, legal experts say that may not be the case at all. The court took pains to note that the landowner's right to pump is not absolute. The water must be put to "beneficial" use and not wasted. And perhaps the most significant comment comes in a footnote on Page 25 of the decision. In it, the justices said courts may have to override basic water rights and require cutbacks in pumping if Californians are "to harmonize water shortages with a fair allocation of future use."

The court did not say so expressly, but the Mojave lawsuit would not have been necessary if California had a statewide ground water management program to reduce constant over-pumping of major underground basins. Other states, including Arizona, have such laws, but agricultural interests have effectively resisted any such plan in California. The last major effort, a 1982 ballot initiative, was defeated, largely because of farmer opposition.

The prospects for water conflicts throughout the state increase with population growth and the continued overdrafting of aquifers--pumping more from the basin than is naturally replenished by rainfall or runoff. Aquifers are a critical water source because nearly a third of all water used in the state comes from the ground. In the San Joaquin Valley, the annual overdraft has been more than 1 million acre-feet a year, enough to provide the domestic needs of 2 million families.

Depletion of an aquifer can dry up existing wells, cause the overlying land to subside and result in poorer-quality water. In coastal areas, depleted aquifers can fill up with seawater.

Ground water management plans can be developed either through court action or by voluntary collaboration of water users. Several major basins in Southern California are managed under court decree, including the central and west basins and in the San Fernando Valley. But the adjudication of basins can be a lengthy, contentious process.

And in the Mojave Basin, the subject of last week's ruling, the court said the water needs of nearby cities could not override the right of six farmers to pump, even though they all rely on the same basic source for their supplies. A rationing plan covering most of the 3,600-square-mile basin can proceed with the voluntary participation of about 200 other farmers and the cities of Barstow, Victorville, Hesperia and Apple Valley. Still, it's not as effective as it would be if everyone joined in.

The state and federal water leaders of the giant Cal-Fed plan say its success depends on "long-term effective ground water management throughout California." No one has paid much attention to that declaration, but it is another major impetus for action in Sacramento to bring rational management to the state's ground water basins.

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