Getting Pumped

The Salinas Valley groundwater basin is outlined in black; the purple area in the center highlights the 180/400 foot subbasin. About 90 percent of the subbasin’s users are agricultural.

In Monterey County, water is a scarce resource. This is an obvious statement to locals who see how rarely water falls from the sky and how depleted streams and rivers can become in drought years. Less obvious is the health of the water pumped out of the ground through wells connected to subterranean lakes and streams known as aquifers. These aquifers provide drinking water to some residents and offer a lifeline to the multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry that fuels the local economy.

Decades of over-pumping have threatened the health of one local group of aquifers, known as the 180/400 foot aquifer subbasin. Water has been pumped out of these aquifers faster than they can recharge. Water levels have been depleted to below sea level, which has allowed seawater to seep into portions of the aquifers, rendering them unusable. The 2014-16 drought drew attention to the importance of aquifer basins in California and prompted the state to assess all of its subterranean resources. The 180/400 foot aquifer subbasin was one of 26 the state dubbed “critically overdrafted” and in immediate need of a sustainability plan.

On June 3, the sustainability plan for the basin was approved by the state’s Department of Water Resources, making it one of only two plans the state has so far deemed sufficient. The nearly 2,000-page report outlines strategies the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin Sustainability Agency – the governmental agency that authored the report – can take to reduce harm to the subbasin’s aquifers. Donna Meyers, general manager of the SVGBSA, says she is confident they can stabilize the aquifers and regulate it toward sustainability by 2040.

Managing the aquifer toward sustainability will be delicate, Meyers says, because each pump plays a critical role in either residential or commercial operations. The plan, as laid out, stops short of issuing any moratorium on new wells. Meyers says the agency wants to lead with a “carrot, not a stick” and is looking at projects to expand recycled water availability before stopping any new pumps. However, she adds the plan does set the agency up to take harsher action, such as reducing well production, if annual data shows the health of the aquifer is declining. About 90 percent of the subbasin’s users are agricultural.

A big question mark for the subbasin is the health of what’s called the “deep aquifer,” a subterranean water source further underground. After seawater contaminated parts of the 180/400 foot aquifer, agricultural users began drilling into the deep aquifer. Little is understood about the deep aquifer – how much water is there? How does it recharge? – and the SVGBSA is preparing to finance a study to analyze it.

Land use watchdog LandWatch has pressured the SVGBSA to place a moratorium on new wells in the deep aquifer until the study is completed and more is understood. John Farrow, an attorney for LandWatch, says the SVGBSA should commit to blocking all pumping from new deep aquifer wells until the study is completed. The study is on track to get underway in 2022.

Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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