An example of why groundwater regulation is hard

OtPR today offers a list of generally poor rural communities that have seen domestic wells go dry as relatively affluent almond farms pump down regional aquifers to keep their orchards alive during the drought. It’s not hard to see why this is wrong:

This economic model, in which powerful outsiders come in, displace the natives and destroy local natural resources (the aquifers) to provide cheap unprocessed goods to a foreign country is pure colonial extraction. I don’t see how it is different from slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon to provide cheap beef or cutting hardwoods like teak out of tropical forests. Mostly I am just stunned that my state is on the receiving end; I thought we were first world. I guess anywhere can be exploited if they aren’t willing to protect their poor or their natural resource.

But regulating groundwater to prevent this has always posed a dilemma. Preventing pumping that might impair a neighbor’s well seems like a reasonable approach to regulating in a situation like this. But one of the results of such an approach is that the shallowest well defines the extent of aquifer use that will be allowed. The implication could be that usable water remains out of reach because it lies below the level of that shallowest well.

Joseph Dellapenna explains the Nebraska Supreme Court’s 1978 answer to this problem:

The court went on to hold that when an overlying owner using groundwater for domestic purposes is compelled to deepen a well to another level because of heavy pumping from the aquifer by another overlying owner, the owner making the deepening of the well necessary would have to compensate the owner whose well needed deepening.

Makes sense.