Groundwater: Protecting Silicon Valley’s Buried Treasure

California made history this month by ending its "Wild West" policy of allowing uncontrolled groundwater pumping by nearly any landowner in the state. Three bills by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) and Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) passed in the final days of the legislative session, despite objections from Republican lawmakers and Central Valley Democrats, and they were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 16.

Agricultural interests that increasingly depend on pumping from wells drove the opposition.

"We're concerned that these hastily written measures may come to be seen as 'historic' for all the wrong reasons," said Paul Wenger, a Modesto almond and walnut farmer who is president of the California Farm Bureau. When lawmakers enacted the state's first water law in 1914, they only addressed surface water. And over the last hundred years farmers have fought off every attempt at change.

San Jose has thrived as an urban community for the last 150 years due, in large part, to its extremely valuable groundwater resources. During the current drought, more groundwater than usual is being provided to us and, so far, maintaining our economic vitality, while avoiding the catastrophic conditions facing many other communities throughout California.

Our agricultural economy steadily grew for decades because of the abundant groundwater resources, until, in the late 1920s, it eventually demanded more water from the this underground bank than was being replaced by nature. The desire to continue this growth resulted in the formation of a local water conservation agency to capture more winter rainfall in upstream reservoirs.

An essential element of this organization was its permission to tax local farmers and water companies for each unit of water pumped, in order to fund the construction of dams and recharge facilities to increase the safe yield of the basin. This process also acted to stop the drastic impact of land surface subsidence, as clay deposits under ancient wetlands dewatered into once artesian aquifers.

Artesian aquifers are wells that allow water to flow to the surface without pumping. San Jose Water Company, the largest investor-owned water company in the country, was originally formed to capture the nonstop flow of water from the first well dug in downtown San Jose back in 1866. San Jose Water Company now delivers water to about a million customers in Silicon Valley communities, pumping about half of its supply from this underground reservoir.

Some communities used litigation to ensure that groundwater resources were allocated on a sustainable and equitable basis. Most basins facing overdraft accessed surface water from local or remote sources to augment or substitute its limited groundwater resources.

In the early 1970s, coastal communities in South Los Angeles and Orange County began using reclaimed wastewater to form hydraulic fresh water mounds underground. This was done to prevent salt water intrusion into their over-drafted groundwater basins. This led these communities to eventually support indirect potable reuse of their locally produced wastewater and, in the case of Orange County, construction of a 100-million-gallon-per-day reverse osmosis plant to recharge the groundwater basin along the Santa Ana River.

For the past 50 years, San Jose and its water wholesale agency, Santa Clara Valley Water District, has preferred other alternatives than indirect potable reuse to augment its water supply. With imported supplies threatened as our three-year drought extends into a possible fourth year, local leaders are calling for expediting construction of additional advanced water purification facilities. These would begin recharging our local groundwater basin with this locally available and drought-proof supply.

As leaders in the past rallied support to build dams and aqueducts to artificially augment our groundwater replenishment, today’s water leaders must build new infrastructure to better handle water recycling. We must refill our currently over-drafted aquifers and protect the productivity of Silicon Valley’s great natural treasure: our local groundwater basin.

Pat Ferraro served as an elected member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District from 1972-1995 and later served as executive director of the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center. He is currently an adjunct professor at San Jose State University and Santa Clara University, lecturing on water law and policy and water resources management.

Pat Ferraro served as an elected member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District from 1972-1995 and later served as executive director of the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center. He is currently an adjunct professor at San Jose State University and Santa Clara University, lecturing on water law and policy and water resources management.

11 Comments

    • Robert, What will kill farming is the overuse of shared water resources. Without this regulation many more farmers and urban areas will run out of water. This legislation is the first step, albeit small one, in documenting the sustainability of our aquifers and accounting of all of those who are using them.
      If you truly read the story about the Oregon man you know that his jail time, NOT prison, was due to how he collected water (i.e. he built unpermitted dams on the drainages on his property even though he was warned not to). Had he captured rooftop runoff in tanks, he wouldn’t have been harassed.

    • Robert Cortese, Mike Cloud is right. Lack of water is what destroys farmers, not agreements to form cooperative local agencies to manage a groundwater basin and ensure it produces sustainably water, with measured recharge and extraction and well-monitored for both quality and quantity. Sorry about the pun.

      • Pat I know you know of Cadawaller, and our families use of it. For years we pumped out of Thompson creek during heavy rains and stored at Cadawaller. Eventually the water board said “Nope” and we were forced to buy treated city water.

        Plants don’t like chlorine. They don’t care too much for fluoride either. Farmers don’t like paying city prices for water they used to get for free. For reference, I grew up on the prune orchard that straddled Thompson, where our pump was.

        • What I recall, Robert, was that after the Evergreen Canal was destroyed during the Silver Creek Estates development, the SCVWD subsidized the remaining agricultural users there and got San Jose Muni to deliver irrigation water at the same price. I agree plants don’t like Chlorine or Fluoride, but they hate having no water even more.

          • Pat you’re opening up something that well… a lot of bad blood between relatives.

            When my grandfather Jerome died, there was a lot of nonsense going down. Our branch ended up with some land with prunes and 1/4 of the Cherry orchard. My grandmother had to fight with those SOB’s for 14 years. 14 years of straight, and political harassment.

            The water subsidies were offered to “Cortese Brothers” We asked, but were denied any water subsidies. We couldn’t maintain our 15 acres of Cherries even if we wanted to.

            Further complicating this was the “flood control project”. Water board gave us a pittance for the land they eminent domained from us, while the other “Cortese Bros.” got above market value.

            I’m gonna quit while I’m ahead here though.. Just brings up bad memories…

  1. All over town there are thousands of unregulated water pumps and a tremendous opportunity for our government to extract more tax revenue from the people who own them. Just about anybody who has property owns and operates at least one of these devices which rob our aquifer of water which would have percolated downward and recharged our groundwater supply, thus depriving all the illegal aliens of their fair share of this most precious of all our natural racehorses.
    These things take perfectly good water out of the ground, pump it up into the air, and spew it indiscriminately into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.
    They’re called trees, and the people who own them need to be told that they need to either chop them down or be prepared to have a meter slapped on them.
    After all, the geniuses among us have declared that green lawns are evil. Why should trees be any different?

  2. Tax greed has reached insane levels.

    There are;

    taxes on air
    taxes on sunshine
    taxes on water
    taxes on movement
    taxes on not moving
    taxes on NOT buying health insurance
    taxes on chemical elements

    Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the entire cosmos. And progressives squeal with glee that they can tax it.

    I predict that taxes on hydrogen, helium, and oxygen are on the way.

  3. > An essential element of this organization was its permission to tax local farmers and water companies for each unit of water pumped, in order to fund the construction of dams and recharge facilities to increase the safe yield of the basin.

    I might actually support a tax like this IF:

    it included the construction of serious, hard time penitentiaries to house all the politicians who attempted to divert a dime of the tax revenues to any purpose other than dams or recharge.

    • Dams and recharge areas are in watersheds. Water resources have to be gathered and protected, cleaned and stored, and delivered in a state as safe as possible for the user, whether fish or fowl or humans or other mammals and critters. It’s all connected. Come experience a SCVWD Board meeting some evening or watch it live or archived through the http://www.valleywater.org web site. Careful, water politics can be very addictive.

      • > Careful, water politics can be very addictive.

        “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

        > Come experience a SCVWD Board meeting some evening …

        SJI provides enough pests and lunkheads that need straightening out. I don’t need a whole new collection of obtuse-niks to elevate my blood pressure.