For the first time in the Public Policy Institute of California's polling history, Californians now list 'water and drought' as the most important issue facing the state, almost twice as important as 'jobs and the economy.' No wonder, then, that water law reform is developing quickly. Last week the state Senate passed a bill that would finally make data from well logs (showing well location and depth) a matter of public record. California had been the only Western state that did not provide public access to well logs. According to stakeholders, the drought has precipitated rapid shifts in public opinion on water regulation:
This is the third time that Pavley has introduced legislation to make the well logs public. The data have been restricted to the well owner, the Department of Water Resources, and selected state agencies for more than 50 years. The Legislature required well drillers to file the completion reports starting in 1949, but two years later lawmakers, at the request of well drillers who claimed the information was a trade secret, halted public access to the documents.
Times have changed. John Hofer, executive director of the California Groundwater Association, which represents well drilling companies, said the organization will not oppose the bill. “We’re not going to stand in the way,” Hofer told Circle of Blue. “It’s not an issue for us now. We’re not going to fight it. It’s coming.”
The legislation is a good start, but remains incomplete for two reasons. First, because while the logs are made public, the actual owners and users of those logs remain confidential. Public shaming of excessive water users in Silicon Valley led to California tightening public access to water consumption records in the late 1990s. Public shaming may not be the most effective route towards use reductions, but knowing who is operating and using wells is important for groundwater management. And that leads to the second concern: California water laws still lack a mechanism to monitor and distribute actual extraction data. In other words, well users still aren't required to report how much water they're using. Until then hydrological models will estimate supply and demand, but the legislature still has work to do to make extraction data more accessible. Still, if public opinion on the drought remains steady, more reforms to California water law are sure to come. Stay tuned.