An increasing number of California water agencies are planning to require flow meters on agricultural wells. Once considered free, private and unlimited, groundwater is now recognized by state law to be a shared resource.
Following enactment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, aquifer managers have been making landmark efforts to plan, measure and avoid the depletion of underground water resources as well as maintain ecological balance. Naturally, the state’s lucrative ag industry is concerned about significant negative impacts on cultivation practices.
SGMA upholds farmers’ rights to pump with limitations. Until recently, rural well owners have not been obligated to report or constrain pumping – let alone measure withdrawals from aquifers. Even as subsidence become observable, officials had few methods to gauge pumping: take aerial photos or track electricity use.
"It's hard to be as efficient as possible if you don't know how much water you're using," said Sierra Ryan, interim water resources manager for Santa Cruz County, a KISTERS client and member of the Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency. "We cannot manage the basin with such large uncertainties in our water use."
Managers of the 140 most imperiled aquifers submitted sustainability plans in January, 2020. With one of the first plans approved by the California Department of Water Resources, Santa Cruz County aims to protect its groundwater with metering, conservation and recycling.
In some of the most-troubled groundwater basins, water managers are not only metering farmers' water use but charging them for it. Some basin managers are giving financial incentives or rebates based on aquifer recharge, implementation of water efficiency innovations, and fallow land.
Some agencies share data with farmers to help inform irrigation practices. Few also note crops in order to develop and refine an accurate model of the region's changing patterns in water- and land-use.
While few farms are refusing property access and thus, metering, many California growers acknowledge their part in responsible pumping and long-term water planning of what water resources are available.