Monday, 22 February 2016

Senator Wolk proposes conditional use permits for new wells. Why not permit new orchards?

Senator Lois Wolk has introduced a provocative new bill that would require conditional use permits for new wells in overdrafted groundwater basins.    The effective measuring and regulation of groundwater pumping is still decades away even with the new groundwater legislation passed next year.  Thus, Senator Wolk’s bill is intended to provide some mechanism to slow groundwater overdraft in the interim, and provide more incentive for local areas to move forward more aggressively on implementing the groundwater legislation.

I agree with Senator Wolk that something should be done in the interim.  And until the state is effectively measuring groundwater extraction, it is left with second-best approaches of regulating what it can observe and permit that is correlated with groundwater extraction.  Regulating new wells is one way to do that, but not the only way.

Why not regulate planting thirsty new orchards that increase and harden water demand with conditional use permits? Or new residential or commercial development that use groundwater?

I am a little concerned about the equity implications of Senator Wolk’s concept.  Many of those who need new wells are people with existing shallow wells or contaminated wells that are not the cause of overdraft.  She is a thoughtful legislator, and I suspect there is some consideration for these issues in the bill’s details.  My first impression is that it would be better to regulate growth in groundwater demand from permanent crops and development whether it is served by existing or new wells.  Perhaps the political opposition to this approach would be worse than regulating new wells.

It will be very interesting to track this bill’s progress.  The opposition will certainly be fierce.

P.S. [2/24]: It was suggested to me that I add permitting cows to the list of alternatives for groundwater basins in overdraft since dairy cows outnumber people in Tulare County which is reported to have experienced the greatest number of dry wells in the drought.  Tulare has also seen significant expansion in orchards.   

About the Author

Ethan Jacob

Author & Editor

I am Ethan Jacob Executive Director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific, where I have a joint faculty appointment in the Eberhardt School of Business and the Public Policy Program in the McGeorge School of Law..

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