California Groundwater Recharge Law Not Considered Beneficial

Oct. 19, 2018

University of California research highlights flaw in state law

University of California (U.C.) researchers have seem to found a fault in state law, suggests it may prohibit diverting streamflow to recharge groundwater. According to News Deeply, the problem is that groundwater recharge is not considered a “beneficial use” under state law. Meeting the definition is a requirement to obtain a permit to divert water.

State Water Resources Control Board officials say the reality is not quite that explicit. The existing rules allow groundwater recharge projects to obtain a water right, but they may not be awarded the right for that act of recharge by itself. The applicant would have to specifically target a primary benefit or recharge, according to News Deeply.

U.C. researchers recommended the water board develop new regulations to clarify that non extractive groundwater use can be beneficial.

Erik Ekdahl, deputy director in the division of water rights at the state board, spoke on why the board is not changing the rules to make groundwater recharge a beneficial use.

“Two main reasons. The first is that it lead to trouble and potential ‘cold storage,’ for lack of a better term, related to junior water-right holders and senior water-right holders,” Ekdahl said to News Deeply.

Ekdahl said if groundwater recharge starts becoming a beneficial use, it allows senior water-right holders to place vast quantities of water into aquifer storage. This would inadvertently reduce water to downstream water-right holders, creating a greater problem.

Upon making groundwater recharge a beneficial use, senior water-right holders then can put that extra 700 acre-ft into storage.

“They can lock that up and keep it underground, and they don’t have to do anything with it. Then all the downstream users don’t have access to it,” Ekdahl said. “So, something a junior water-right holder might have been getting very cheaply, they suddenly might have to pay a couple hundred dollars an acre-foot or more to get. It reduces the amount of water that might be available, and it changes the cost structure.”

The second reason, according to Ekdahl, is the rules do not need to be changed to garner the proper effect.

“There seems to be the mistaken belief among a lot of water-right users that if you just made groundwater recharge a beneficial use then it would be really easy to get a groundwater storage permit,” Ekdahl said to News Deeply. “Yet that’s not really the case. It doesn’t address the things that really fundamentally drive the water-right permitting process – which are whether or not they have done an environmental review and whether or not there is actually water available, as well as the effects on downstream water users and the environment. We still have to address all of those things. So simply making groundwater recharge a beneficial use doesn’t avoid those issues that take a long time to address.”

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