Groundwater woes

Hydrogeologist warns of politics in water policy

Carl Hauge, former chief hydrogeologist for the California Department of Water Resources, told his audience at Chico State that politics is too often the determining factor in water policy.

Carl Hauge, former chief hydrogeologist for the California Department of Water Resources, told his audience at Chico State that politics is too often the determining factor in water policy.

PHOTO by tom gascoyne

The three-year drought in California has focused attention on water rights (and wrongs) and, according to some, exposed the fact that water management in the state is complex, confusing and ill-defined. And too often politics, rather than science, dictates policy.

That message was brought home March 25 by Carl Hauge, who came to Chico State as part of a lecture series on groundwater resources. Hauge, a registered geologist and retired chief hydrogeologist for the California Department of Water Resources, addressed a packed Holt Hall classroom and basically said that though not regulated the same by the state, there is no difference between surface water and groundwater. That discrepancy has led to problems not just in California but in a number of other Western states as well.

“What is the best way to manage groundwater?” he asked early on in his presentation. “A local management agency, adjudication by a court, or integrated regional management?”

He said when pondering the question, the state Legislature considers political, legal, institutional, technical and economic restraints.

“P.L.I.T.E. is the acronym,” Hauge pointed out. “Technical is one item, but the rest are political, legal, institutional and economic. So when water issues get planned in California and in most other Western states, it ain’t really about science.”

Early on, Hauge said he would not talk much about groundwater quality, but not because it’s not an important concern.

“You can have a lot of water, but if the quality is low you can’t use it, which means you don’t have a lot of water,” he said. “And if you have to process it, that’s an additional expense. One of the big things about the metropolitan water districts in Southern California is that they want good-quality water going down through the State Water Project, because if it’s not good-quality water, they have to spend a lot of money to treat it.”

Hauge said that groundwater recharge areas must be protected, but most people don’t know where recharge areas are. He said he is often asked why the state does not have permitting jurisdiction over groundwater. The state Water Commission was appointed in 1911 by the state Legislature and asked to regulate water resources, he explained.

“They took testimony and wrote the Water Commission Act, which included permitting jurisdiction for the state for both surface water and groundwater,” Hauge said.

A proposal has been floated to raise Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet.

Photo by Andrew Zarivny/Thinkstock

However, rulings in a couple of court cases watered down the act. In one case, the court cited an English case from 1843 called Acton v. Blundell, which is referred to as the “rule of capture.” The case established ownership of natural resources including groundwater. Basically, it says that the first landowner who extracts groundwater directly under his or her property acquires absolute ownership of the water, even if extracting it dries up the neighbors’ wells.

“If you own property, you have absolute ownership of the water below your property,” Hauge said. “But that absolute right is correlative with all of the absolute rights of everybody else in the [water] basin and those correlative rights are never defined unless you go to court.”

Hauge said that a lobbyist from the Central Valley pointed back to that 1843 English court decision and said that, since the landowner has absolute ownership of the groundwater, the Legislature can’t take that right away. The Water Commission Act that was submitted to the Legislature included permitting both surface water and groundwater, but it was amended to exclude permitting groundwater. The act was passed in 1913 and went into effect a year later. In 1944, it became known as the California Water Code.

“We don’t know what happened for sure, but apparently the Central Valley lobbyist was successful at convincing the Legislature that property owners had absolute right to that water. So no groundwater is ruled by judicial law and surface water is ruled by statutory law.”

Today, because of the multiple and overlapping jurisdictions of local, regional and state regulators, water disputes often end up in court

“Either local management agencies or integrated regional water management can be successful, but somebody can always file a court action leading to adjudication,” Hauge said.

Pumping water from under ground depletes surface water, he said, by severing the hydraulic continuity between the river and the groundwater.

“It gets to the point where you won’t have water in the river itself. This has happened to a lot of rivers in California. Every basin needs a water budget. If you don’t know what water is coming in and what water is going out, you’re not managing the basin,” Hauge said. “It’s like writing a check from your checking account but not knowing what is going into the account. You just keep writing checks, writing checks, writing checks. You just keep pumping, pumping, pumping and not worrying or doing anything about the recharge.”

Too many agencies with differing agendas are calling the shots when it comes to existing water management in the state, Hauge argued.

“There is an unknown amount of water pumped, there is an unknown amount of recharge, and there are unknown correlative rights of owners in each basin,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, and I don’t know if it will get done.”

At the end of his talk, Hauge was asked what if any effect raising the Shasta Dam or the construction of the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County may have. Last month, Congressmen Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) and John Garamendi (D-Fairfield) introduced a federal bill to authorize the construction of Sites Reservoir. And for the past year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been looking at raising the Shasta Dam by nearly 20 feet—increasing the water storage by 13 percent.

“It all depends on how it’s managed,” Hauge said. “Raising Shasta and building Sites would be two steps in the same-old direction—build more dams for more storage. Given the fact that the snow level is going to rise, runoff is going to be faster, and it’s going to take a whole new management scheme eventually, whether that fits into a raised Shasta and a new Sites, I don’t know. But again, I’ll go back to that word: ‘P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S.’”