Over the Hill

Groundwater pumping needs to be regulated

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

Up here in the North County we’ve had some cold nights. Wednesday morning I saw frost on the roof across the street for the first time this fall. Now I’m hoping for a “White Christmas.” Yes, with this current drought I’d even welcome snow.

You probably heard we’re pumping too much water from the Paso Robles groundwater basin, which is an underground layer of dirt, gravel and other materials that is saturated with water.

I’m sorry they named it after Paso Robles. It’s way bigger than Paso. At least half the North County sits on it. And so does a chunk of southern Monterey County.

And now we’re pumping more water out of it than nature replaces. If you overdraw your bank account too often you end up bankrupt. I’m afraid we might be heading for water bankruptcy.

Naturally we’re looking to blame somebody. We’ve noticed a lot of North County hills are no longer golden with grain and wild oats. They are now carpeted with lush, green, irrigated vineyards. Neighboring homeowners have also reported wells going dry.

So, people blame the irrigated vineyards. But they’re still just suspects. Nothing’s been conclusively proven. And we all know some grape growers who are fine people. I think we need to put meters on every well that taps into the basin. The readings from those meters might prove the vineyards innocent, or not.

But we need the meters for something more important than placing blame. We need them to properly manage the basin. They could help water district officers set each pumper’s fair share of water.

It’s unfair for property owners to take unlimited amounts of water from their land. Water isn’t like a vein of ore. It flows like surface water but more slowly. I’ve read it flows 50 feet a day on average. It can’t be fenced in. It isn’t part of the property.

So if you pump more than your fair share you’re taking somebody else’s water. We need a water district to figure out what the fair shares should be and then to supervise them.

Also, there’s another reason why pumpers shouldn’t take too much water. Over-pumping can damage the water basin. When water users take out more than nature can replace, the underground formations often collapse. Gravity drags them toward the core of the Earth. The land in that vicinity sinks.

A famous case of that happened in an area southwest of Mendota, Calif. Between 1925 and 1977 irrigation pumping caused the land to sink 29 feet. Groundwater pumping is serious business. It needs to be properly regulated.