Drilling down on groundwater

Years ago, when I was a newbie cops reporter, I called the hospital to inquire about the condition of a man who had been in a car accident.

“He’s stable,” a busy nursing supervisor told me.

When I presented this news to my editor at the time — a seasoned, delightfully cynical former Mercury News reporter named Maline Hazle — I was immediately schooled.

Stable means nothing, Maline told me. “Dead people are stable,” she said.

Was the patient critical but stable? Serious but stable? Stable and about to go home? Or stable and en route to the morgue?

Since then, I’ve never accepted “stable” as an answer.

We learned last month that a long-planned reservoir in east San Joaquin County may no longer be worth building, in part because groundwater levels have stabilized, which raises questions about the need for that half-a-billion-dollar project. (Actually, the way the experts are describing it is that groundwater has reached “equilibrium,” which is basically the same thing as saying it’s “stable.”)

On the off-chance you haven’t been paying attention to the scintillating world of groundwater, this is pretty shocking news. For decades local water managers have been saying that our precious groundwater is over-tapped — that we extract more water from wells each year than is naturally replenished by rain and seepage from rivers.

That mantra screeched to a stop last month when a consultant reported that over time, and on average across the county, groundwater is no longer declining. That’s primarily thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars that we’ve spent on new diversions from above-ground rivers and streams.

Rarely, in the slow-moving water world, does such a dramatic shift in thinking occur so quickly. And judging by a meeting I attended today, folks are still having a hard time believing that it’s true.

“North and east wells are still going down,” said Tom Flynn, retired head of San Joaquin County Public Works, now a board member with the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District.

“I don’t know how that’s ‘equilibrium,’” Flynn said. “I feel uncomfortable with that word.”

But just like that nursing supervisor years ago, county leaders seem to be indicating merely that this “patient” is no longer getting worse. He may not be getting any better, either.

Indeed, the mere notion that groundwater levels have stabilized doesn’t mean that the condition of the underground aquifer is acceptable.

The challenge now that the “patient” is stable is to determine what level of investment in new water projects is necessary to bring him back to a reasonable level of health.

The question, as put by county Water Resources Coordinator Brandon Nakagawa: “Is this a healthy place to be for our groundwater basin?”

The whole discussion is interesting but also a bit sensitive. San Joaquin County has many millions of dollars in future water-supply projects for which it would like to seek state funding. Misinformed pronouncements about some kind of miraculous improvement in the groundwater could harm this effort, particularly in light of less optimistic news in other parts of the Valley.

“We need to be very careful,” said Mel Lytle, director of Stockton’s Municipal Utilities Department.

Even in this new-found state of equilibrium, groundwater levels will continue to rise and fall on a year-to-year basis. They’re likely to tumble after this historically dry 2013. Extended droughts, climate change and alterations in future land use patterns could upset any fragile balance that we’ve been able to achieve.

The patient may be stable, but I doubt anyone would argue he’s ready to be discharged from the hospital.

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  • Blog Author

    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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