Groundwater: The Final Frontier


When you think of a frontier, you think of a place where there is not much government.  How do you govern when there isn’t a lot known about what you would govern?

In the Wild West, government and regulation weren’t needed because there was plenty of land and resources to make everybody happy.  And importantly, there was a lot of unknown on the frontier, making it difficult to govern.

Similarly, the regulation or management of many of California’s groundwater basins, or aquifers, hasn’t been needed because there was groundwater aplenty.    But, groundwater management is also slow to arrive because it is difficult to govern, or regulate, the unknown.

One of the biggest problems in regulating groundwater is that there is a lot we don’t know about the very aquifers that need to be managed (or regulated). How deep are they?  How much water do they hold?  What are their specific boundaries?  How quickly do they recharge naturally?  Is the water better quality in some areas than others?  Are there areas where we could help recharge them with injection wells or surface ponding?  The questions go on and on.

Hydrogeologists and expert well drillers will tell you they can answer all those questions.  And yes, they can use the limited data available and their wise professional judgment to help us visualize the aquifers below.  But, the reality is that nobody can see just exactly what is underground, hidden from view.

Over time, as more holes are drilled in the earth, more information becomes available, we get a better picture of the various soil layers, the bottom of the aquifer, or where there might be pockets of natural contaminants (arsenic, salt, boron, etc), pollution (perchlorate, hydrocarbons, hexavalent chromium, etc), or hot geothermal water.  There will always be a certain amount of the unknown to deal with, but the more information you have the better the groundwater management.

Communities that have seen their water tables drop due to over-pumping are moving toward better management of their aquifers.  And, the Governor and Legislature are working to facilitate better local management.  To reach that goal, it is critical that whatever information is developed about our aquifers is collected and made available to local leaders.  They need to know where wells are drilled, what the drillers found underground, the results of any water quality tests, monthly water levels in wells, and how much water is used each year from each well.

Coming from a family of cattlemen that crossed the Oregon Trail, I understand the romance of the West and the distrust of government regulation.  But, those same cattlemen value information when it comes to managing the resources they all depend on as a community.  You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

It seems like it is time to settle the final frontier.  It’s time to start collecting and publishing whatever information we have available about groundwater.  In the long term, that information will lead to the quality of groundwater management that is crucial to protect the rights of individuals.