Overpumping groundwater poses a major threat to the availability of a critical resource, especially in the arid lands of the Southwestern United States. States across the region have sought to deal with this issue through a wide variety of regulations and permitting processes. A new dashboard tool, created by affiliates from Stanford’s Water in the West program, compares groundwater withdrawal permitting – a common tool used by resource managers to limit groundwater pumping – to help plan for a more sustainable future.
“Western states have adopted a wide range of approaches towards regulating groundwater pumping, but information about these approaches are not always shared across the region. Our goal is to help parties in different states learn from what is happening elsewhere. This is particularly important in California, where local agencies are working to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West and a dashboard contributor.
New report finds at least half a million acres of farmland will need to be fallowed to balance groundwater use with supply
The San Joaquin Valley, California’s largest agricultural region and an important contributor to the nation’s food supply, is on the brink of a major transition as it seeks to balance its groundwater accounts.
Implementing the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—which requires overdrafted groundwater basins to achieve balance between supply and demand by the 2040s—will bring great change to the valley’s agricultural sector, regional land use, and the local economy.
The pace of groundwater pumping accelerated during the 2012–16 drought. Over the past three decades, the valley’s annual groundwater deficit has averaged nearly 2 million acre-feet—or about one Don Pedro Reservoir’s worth of water a year.
Only about a quarter of this deficit can be filled with new supplies at prices farmers can afford. Ending overdraft could require taking at least 500,000 acres of irrigated cropland out of production.
These are among the key findings of a report released today by the PPIC Water Policy Center.
The new report breaks the issues into three key areas and presents priority actions for tackling them: balancing water supply and demand, addressing groundwater quality challenges, and fostering beneficial solutions to water and landuse transitions.
“The large and complex scope of the changes coming to the valley will require cooperative solutions that bring multiple benefits and get more ‘pop per drop’ from scarce water supplies,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center and a coauthor of the report.
One promising solution is to increase water trading, which can significantly reduce the impacts of ending groundwater overdraft by allowing farmers to maintain the crops that generate the most revenue and jobs. If farmers can freely trade water within their basin, it will reduce the costs of this transition by nearly half. And if they can also trade more broadly across the region, it will cut their costs by nearly two-thirds.
In addition to water shortages, the valley must respond to serious water quality problems. More than 100 rural communities have persistently contaminated tap water. Valley farmers must also meet new requirements for protecting groundwater from the buildup of nitrate and salts. The most promising tool for augmenting supplies—groundwater recharge—poses some tradeoffs with water quality goals if not managed properly.
“The solutions to the valley’s water quality problems don’t fall neatly into traditional political and institutional boundaries―and with 120 new groundwater agencies, it’s gotten even more complex,” said Sarge Green, a coauthor of the report and director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State. “Many players will need to be involved in devising long-term solutions to these complex problems.”
The lands fallowed to achieve groundwater balance could be converted to uses such as solar energy, groundwater recharge, and restored habitat. Getting the greatest benefit from idled lands will require new levels of planning and cooperation.
Governor Newsom focused on the valley’s groundwater, water quality, and poverty problems in his recent State of the State speech and included funds to address safe drinking water problems in his first budget.
The PPIC report recommends key areas where state leadership could help—including providing clarity on how much water is available for recharge, establishing a reliable funding source for safe drinking water challenges, and supporting broad planning processes, among others.
“Leadership from state and federal partners will be critical,” said Hanak. “But the valley’s future is in the hands of its residents. The stakes are high—but the costs of inaction are higher.”
The report, Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley, was supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the TomKat Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Water Foundation. In addition to Hanak and Green, it was authored by Alvar Escriva-Bou, a research fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center; Brian Gray, a senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center; Thomas Harter, the Robert M. Hagan Endowed Chair in Water Management and Policy at UC Davis; Jelena Jezdimirovic, a research associate at the PPIC Water Policy Center; Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis; Josué Medellín-Azuara, associate professor at UC Merced; Peter Moyle, associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis; and Nathaniel Seavy, a research director at Point Blue Conservation Science. A public event on the report’s findings will take place at Fresno State on February 22.
From UC Water and the Groundwater Resources Association:
There are only two ways to reduce groundwater overdraft: decrease pumping or increase recharge.
While addressing California’s overdraft will certainly require both actions, we convened a meeting of water management experts around groundwater recharge. The goal of the “Recharge Roundtable” was to address California’s severe groundwater overdraft problem through actions that would produce substantial increases in recharge in the next five years.
As a collaboration between the Groundwater Resources Association of California and the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, we aimed to motivate focused actions that effect large quantities of recharge and produce regional benefits. The Recharge Roundtable participants and organizers produced a call to action, organized around six key questions and related action steps:
- How much water is hydrologically available for recharge?
- How much water can be recharged in different hydrogeologic environments?
- What are the legal and regulatory bottlenecks, and how can they be eliminated or reduced?
- How can hundreds to thousands of recharge projects be incentivized?
- What changes in reservoir reoperation and conveyance are needed?
- What are the water quality benefits and concerns for recharge?
It is increasingly obvious that tantalizing possibilities for increasing recharge to California’s aquifers exist, yet state and local water agencies and stakeholders are not sufficiently prepared to capitalize on those possibilities. This call to action is intended to help our state prepare.
Download the Call to Action:Recharge Roundtable Call to Action: Key Steps for Replenishing California Groundwater (Updated January 2019)
From Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment:
“Many arid regions face groundwater security and reliability challenges, such as overdraft and climate change-driven precipitation shifts. Increasingly, water managers are considering recharging aquifers using stormwater and recycled water–Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR). These projects are hindered by a lack of tools to evaluate system design costs and trade-offs. Stanford researchers have developed AquaCharge, a planning tool that can optimize system costs and performance to help water managers make more informed decisions about how MAR can fit into water management strategies. … ”
Read this research brief here: AquaCharge: A Design Tool for Balancing Groundwater Management Trade-Offs
From the Pacific Institute:
“Navigating around puddles that form on streets and in parking lots after a rainstorm can be a nuisance. But this water, technically known as stormwater, has the potential to become an important water supply for many Californian communities. For example, one study showed enough potential supply from stormwater in major urban and suburban centers in California to annually provide millions of gallons for the recharge of local aquifers.
In addition to providing valuable water supply, effective stormwater management can help reduce local flooding and prevent trash and other pollution from getting into streams or the ocean. What’s more, many stormwater capture projects have further co-benefits, such as providing habitat, reducing urban temperatures, reducing energy use, creating community recreation spaces, and increasing property values. … ”
Read more from the Pacific Institute here: The stormwater opportunity
A Guidebook for using California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to protect fisheries
From the Center on Urban Environmental Law at Golden Gate University:
“In California, surface waters have historically been regulated as if they were unconnected to groundwater. Yet, in reality, surface waters and groundwater are often hydrologically connected. Many of the rivers that support fisheries such as salmon and trout are hydrologically dependent on tributary groundwater to maintain instream flow. This means that when there is intensive pumping of tributary groundwater the result can be reductions in instream flow and damage to fisheries.
For this reason, stakeholders concerned about adequate instream flows for fisheries in California’s rivers, streams and creeks need to be effectively engaged in the implementation of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). …
Each SGMA Groundwater Plan must detail how the groundwater basin will be managed to avoid overdraft conditions and, importantly for fisheries, to avoid adverse impacts on hydrologically connected surface waters.
Although groundwater sustainability agencies and fishery stakeholders recognize that the groundwater-surface water connection needs to be addressed in SGMA Groundwater Plans, at present there is limited guidance on how to do this. That is, what are the specific types of information, modeling, monitoring, and pumping provisions that should be included in SGMA Groundwater Plans to ensure that groundwater extraction does not cause significant adverse impacts on fisheries? The purpose of this guidebook is to provide such guidance.”
From Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck:
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (“SGMA”) is now in its fourth year of operation. Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (“GSAs”) have been formed throughout the medium- and high-priority basins across California, and those GSAs are now developing Groundwater Sustainability Plans (“GSP”). The GSPs will ultimately afford greater long-term groundwater supply reliability by avoiding chronic groundwaer depletion and other “undesirable results,” such as signficant loss of storage, water quality degradation, subsidence, and seawater intrusion.
To achieve sustainable management in basins experiencing pronounced overdraft conditions, either augmented recharge will be necessary or groundwater extractions will need to be reduced over time. This process will affect municipal water suppliers that rely on groundwater basins that are subject to SGMA’s provision. It is, thus, important that municipal water suppliers understand the requirements of SGMA, the potential impacts to their groundwater supplies, and the procedural and substantive options and strategies that should be considered throughout the process.
To that effect, this paper will cover:
1. An overview of SGMA and its essential provisions;
2. The issues that will need to be resolved to implement SGMA, including the potential
division of available water supplies within a basin;
3. A summary of key groundwater rights laws;
4. A discussion of groundwater basin adjudications and new laws designed to streamline future adjudications and harmonize their results with SGMA; and
5. Strategies that municipal water providers may employ to optimize outcomes from the SGMA/adjudication process.
Read the report from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck here: Report: An Assessment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act for Municipal Water Suppliers.
From the Environmental Defense Fund:
Two new reports are available to aid Groundwater Sustainability Agencies in preparing and implementing their Groundwater Sustainability Plans to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA):
Groundwater Pumping Allocations under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: Guidance for Groundwater Sustainability Agencies
This paper, co-authored with New Current Water and Land, addresses one major dilemma facing Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs): how to comply with SGMA without changing groundwater rights. It starts by providing background on groundwater law and then recommends one approach among four to develop an allocation scheme that is most likely to withstand a court challenge.
- Blog post: http://blogs.edf.org/growingreturns/2018/09/04/groundwater-managers-sgma-compliance/
- Paper: https://www.edf.org/content/groundwater-pumping-allocations-under-californias-sustainable-groundwater-management-act
Depletion Requirements in California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
In this paper, Environmental Defense Fund proposes an approach for GSAs to address surface water depletions – also known as the “sixth deadly sin” or “Undesirable Result No. 6” – under SGMA.