Amid Drought, Criticism of State’s Secrecy on Wells

Alameda County Water District employees dig a groundwater monitoring well on Brenton Place in East Bay town of Newark. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Alameda County Water District employees dig a groundwater monitoring well on Brenton Place in East Bay town of Newark. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

By Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — A decades-old law barring the public from viewing records of water wells throughout California is drawing criticism from those who believe the information locked away could help scientists and water policy specialists better protect the state’s groundwater supply.

The criticism comes as the state’s drought prompts farms and cities, mostly in the Central Valley, to drill hundreds of new wells and pump huge amounts of groundwater.

While other Western states make well logs widely available, the Sacramento Bee reports that the law makes a narrow group of state officials and researchers privy to facts and figures on each well’s depth, diameter and the geological material bored through to hit water.

Records of flows and capacities for the state’s rivers and reservoirs are abundantly available, but not for wells in California that provide one-third or more of the state’s water supply and even more in dry years like this one.

“We are living in the Dark Ages with access to basic data,” said Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center in Visalia, which seeks greater public access to groundwater information. “We’re basically blindfolding ourselves.”

The law passed 63 years ago was designed to create an element of secrecy so drilling companies didn’t tip their competitors to prime places to dig new wells.

Supporters of the law today fear that opening up the logs invites lawsuits, possible restrictions on underground water and even sabotage if the information were to fall into the wrong hands.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, said he supports the current restriction on the well logs.

“I don’t see a real benefit for throwing a lot of that information out for public demand,” Wenger said. “Those who are in authority and who have a need to know have access to it now.”

In 1951, Gov. Earl Warren wrote that restrictions on releasing the data would allow drillers to provide the state with more complete and accurate information. Today, the state has 800,000 well logs on record.

John Hofer, who represents well drillers as executive director of the California Groundwater Association, said this is a new day and he favors opening up the records.

“I think the time has come to have better science and regulations,” he said. “We want to be on the cutting edge of the new science.”

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