California’s megadrought has brought forth competition for scarce water supplies. Brownstein Hyatt shareholder Stephanie Osler Hastings examines implementation of the California Legislature’s first comprehensive groundwater regulation to deal with the issue, enacted in 2014, in this context. She also looks at recent challenges to these rules.
By the time California finally began regulating groundwater use in 2014, most of the San Joaquin Valley was in critical overdraft. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that groundwater pumping in the region has exceeded replenishment by an average of 1.8 million acre-feet per year over the last few decades. This imbalance was even worse during our last drought, when overuse shot up to 2.4 million acre-feet per year.
Overpumping puts groundwater aquifers at risk of compaction, permanently reducing their water storage capacity and making surface lands sink. Now, however, San Joaquin Valley groundwater managers must find and implement a fix. The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act mandates balancing the region’s pumping with replenishment by 2040.
Managed aquifer recharge — diverting excess flood water so it can soak into the ground — is an obvious remedy. But accelerating recharge in the San Joaquin Valley is easier said than done. “Recharge is slow in silt and clay, and these are ubiquitous across the Central Valley,” explains Graham Fogg, an emeritus hydrogeologist at UC Davis.
Fogg and colleagues have found a new way to speed recharge in the Central Valley: ancient river channels where water can shoot underground.
“The water spigots on California farms will soon be twisted tighter.
As the state faces a growing threat from drought, an increasing number of water agencies are planning to require flow meters on agricultural wells, part of a landmark effort to measure and constrain pumping that used to be free and unlimited. It’s a controversial step aimed at protecting water supplies that could change cultivation practices in the Golden State’s thirsty fields.
“It’s hard to be as efficient as possible if you don’t know how much water you’re using,” said Sierra Ryan, interim water resources manager for Santa Cruz County.
Under the state’s tough new groundwater protection law, “we now have a legal obligation to manage our groundwater sustainably,” she said. “And we cannot manage the basin with such large uncertainties in our water use.” ... ”
Beneath the almond and citrus fields of the San Joaquin Valley lies an enormous system of aquifers that feeds some of the world’s most productive farmland. Hundreds of miles north and east, along the Nevada border, is the Surprise Valley, a remote, high-desert region undergirded by cone-shaped hollows of sediment that hold deposits of water. Both of these water systems, along with every other groundwater basin in California — a whopping 515 entities — must create individually tailored plans to manage their water use more sustainably. In scale and ambition, California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) has few parallels. And the work becomes increasingly urgent as the climate crisis makes water shortages increasingly severe.
Passed in 2014, SGMA is a complicated law that addresses what appears to be a straightforward problem: California doesn’t have enough groundwater. For decades, water users have taken out more than they put back in, with little statewide oversight. SGMA changes all that by drawing boundaries around the state’s groundwater basins (some, but not all, had been already defined and locally regulated) and requiring each one to create a local regulatory body and its own sustainability plan. These agencies must work with myriad stakeholders — public water systems, Indigenous nations, domestic and municipal well users and historically disadvantaged communities, as well as the ecosystems themselves.
State water agencies, the California Water Data Consortium (Consortium) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced a new partnership today to make an open-source groundwater accounting platform freely available to help groundwater sustainability agencies manage the transition to sustainable supplies.
Collaborative efforts are underway among the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board), the Consortium and EDF to adapt and scale the groundwater accounting platform that was co-developed by EDF and Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District with technical support from Sitka Technology Group, OpenET, WestWater Research, and Olsson Engineering and funding from the Water Foundation, among other supporters. Use of the groundwater accounting platform is entirely voluntary.
“Our goal is to help groundwater managers more easily and cost-effectively track water use across their agencies and coordinate within and across basins to find the most effective approach for enabling sustainable groundwater management,” said Steven Springhorn, acting deputy director at DWR for statewide groundwater management. “The accounting platform developed by EDF is a valuable tool for local decision making, and the Water Data Consortium is a natural fit for ensuring the platform meets local and state needs long term.”
SEE ALSO: 3 ways this accounting platform will help California groundwater agencies transition to sustainable supplies, from the Growing Returns blog
Vicky Espinoza is a Ph.D. Candidate advised by Dr. Joshua Viers in the Environmental Systems Graduate Group at the University of California Merced. As a Latina in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), she has been actively involved in making science and mathematics accessible to underrepresented, Spanish-speaking communities throughout her educational career.
Q: Can you share a brief introduction of your research and CaliWaterAg?
A: Many studies have projected that more than 10% of agricultural land will need to go out of production to address groundwater overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley. Taking land out of production is difficult and something that cannot be done randomly since there are impacts to people’s livelihood and the economy. My doctoral work addresses how and where this is going to happen in a way that minimizes impacts to already vulnerable communities and farmers in the Valley.
Watch video segment from RFD TV here: Using vineyards to recharge California’s groundwater
For more on groundwater recharge, visit the groundwater recharge page at the Groundwater Exchange by clicking here.
From JD SUPRA:
“Key points in this legal brief:
- A permitting agency’s blanket designation of an entire category of permit decisions as ministerial for purposes of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) may be held to be improper if the agency has the ability to modify or deny the permit based on any concern that may be examined under CEQA review.
- Courts will afford a larger degree of deference to an agency’s designation of a single permit decision as ministerial on a case-by-case basis.”
Groundwater plans could cause up to 12,000 drinking water wells to run dry: “If all goes according to plan — actually 26 groundwater sustainability plans — between 46,000 and nearly 130,000 Central Valley residents could be out of water by 2040, according to a new report released by the Water Foundation. Those sustainability plans are supposed to bring the valley’s depleted aquifers into balance, per the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. But, the Water Foundation report asserts, groundwater sustainability agencies, governed mostly by members of agricultural water districts, are planning for water tables to decline to the point they could dry up between 4,000 and 12,000 domestic wells over the next 20 years. ... ” Read more from SJV Water here: Groundwater plans could cause up to 12,000 drinking water wells to run dry
New USGS geonarrative pinpoints domestic well locations in United States: “A new U.S. Geological Survey geonarrative illustrates where domestic (private) water wells are located and how many people are using them, based on the results of a 2019 USGS study. Nearly 40 million people in the United States rely on a domestic well for their drinking-water supply. The geonarrative displays interactive maps that allow the user to view the number of people who rely on domestic wells per square kilometer, and the number and percentage of people by state using domestic wells. Users can zoom in on any area, although the maps are not intended to be used at the scale of a single house. … ” Read more from the USGS here: New USGS geonarrative pinpoints domestic well locations in United States
Groundwater accountability sparks clash of Central Valley ag titans: “Two giant Central Valley farming companies are slinging serious mud at one another over groundwater. And, in a rare break with tradition, they’re doing it in public. The fight has spilled out in public comments on the Tulare Lake Subbasin Groundwater Sustainability Plan, which covers most of Kings County. The titans behind the comments are J.G. Boswell Company and Sandridge Partners, owned by John Vidovich. … ” Read more from SJV Water here: Groundwater accountability sparks clash of Central Valley ag titans
Napa County taps citizens to plan groundwater sustainability plan: “Napa County’s annual groundwater “snapshot” for 2019 depicts a subbasin under the floor of world-famous wine country that isn’t being sucked dry by wells. Water users pumped 18,005 acre-feet of water from the Napa Valley subbasin last year. That is within the annual sustainable yield of 17,000 to 20,000 acre-feet, according to the Luhdorff & Scalmanini consulting firm. ... ” Read more from the Napa Register here: Napa County taps citizens to plan groundwater sustainability plan
Mendocino City Community Services District creates special groundwater committee: “At the monthly Mendocino City Community Services District meeting, the board discussed rain levels and a newly formed groundwater management committee. As of May 19, rainfall totals for the current rain year are 50 percent of normal. Mendocino has received 20.32 inches during the current water year. The forty-year average for this time of year is twice that at 40.04 inches. … ” Read more from the Mendocino Beacon here: Mendocino City Community Services District creates special groundwater committee
Central Valley water districts take aim at each other’s groundwater plans: “There is no tougher playground than California’s water world. Just take a look at the zingers flying back and forth between water districts on one another’s groundwater sustainability plans posted on the Department of Water Resources’ website. “It’s like a giant game of dodgeball,” said Dana Munn, General Manager of Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District. ... ” Read more from SJV Water here: Central Valley water districts take aim at each other’s groundwater plans