SUSTAINABLE CONSERVATION: Protecting Water Quality While Recharging Aquifers

Over 600,000 Californians rely on nitrate-contaminated public supply wells for their household water needs.  However, those numbers are even greater as they don’t include the many others who struggle with contaminated groundwater from domestic wells.  Balancing long-term groundwater sustainability and water quality will help California weather future droughts, ensure safe drinking water, and support our thriving agricultural community that feeds the nation.

One tool for groundwater sustainability is groundwater recharge, where water is intentionally spread on the ground and allowed to infiltrate into the underlying aquifer.  However, there is much concern that groundwater recharge can increase water quality issues, especially when the recharge water is spread upon agricultural lands.

In November of 2021, Sustainable Conservation held a webinar featuring a panel of experts who discussed how California can work to replenish our aquifers while protecting water quality for the health of our communities.

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2022 SAFER Aquifer Risk Map: Estimating groundwater quality risk for domestic wells and state small water systems

From the State Water Board:

The Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) drinking water program is a set of tools, funding sources, and regulatory authorities to provide assistance to the nearly one million Californians who currently lack safe drinking water.

The Aquifer Risk Map fulfills one of the requirements in Senate Bill 200 (Monning, statutes of 2019), and is a component of the SAFER program. The Aquifer Risk Map uses existing water quality data to estimate where domestic wells (serving less than five connections) and state small water systems (serving between 5 and 15 connections) are at risk of accessing groundwater that does not meet primary drinking water standards.

The Aquifer Risk Map is intended to inform Water Boards staff in the preparation of the annual Fund Expenditure Plan and to help identify at-risk state small water systems and domestic wells as required in SB 200. For the 2022 Needs Assessment, the SAFER program will combine the results of the Aquifer Risk Map with drought risk data from the Department of Water Resources to produce a combined risk assessment for state small water systems and domestic wells. … ”

Click here to continue reading this press release from the State Water Board.

Programs pursue groundwater quality goals

Pilot programs in two regions of the San Joaquin Valley will serve as templates for other areas developing plans to prevent fertilizer and irrigation runoff from entering groundwater supplies. The programs will also create plans to provide clean drinking water to disadvantaged communities.

The Turlock and Kings River groundwater subbasins are among six in the Central Valley designated as high priority due to nitrate levels that exceed 10 milligrams per liter. Affected stakeholders in the two subbasins are using grant funds from the State Water Resources Control Board for pilot programs to develop plans for compliance.

Wayne Zipser, a director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, which works with irrigators in Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties, described the Turlock Subbasin Management Zone Pilot Program as “a proactive approach before this regulation even happens.”

Continue reading from Ag Alert by clicking here.

Five years into SGMA, here are five important considerations for balancing groundwater quality and quantity

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), signed into law five years ago, requires local leaders to balance groundwater demand and supplies for the first time. Groundwater is an important foundation of California’s water system, and SGMA is a crucial way of strengthening that foundation and creating a more resilient future for the state.

However, balancing groundwater budgets will not be easy. And this major challenge is further complicated by the fact that activities designed to increase groundwater supplies can unintentionally cause new groundwater quality problems or worsen existing contamination.

A new working paper that Environmental Defense Fund co-authored with Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; Green Science Policy Institute; and the Energy and Environmental Sciences Area of Berkeley Lab outlines how groundwater management activities can affect not only the quantity but also the quality of groundwater.

Click here to read more and download the report: Five years into SGMA, here are five important considerations for balancing groundwater quality and quantity

Sacramento Valley Watersheds: Regional Collaborative Approaches to Maintaining and Improving Groundwater Quality for Multiple Benefits

Vicki Kretsinger Grabert writes,

“Understanding the status of California’s surface water and groundwater availability and sustainability are key goals of many programs. Sacramento Valley’s water resources managers and communities are proactively and collaboratively engaged in identifying and implementing strategies that support water resources sustainability. This includes protecting groundwater quality for multiple beneficial uses, which is being addressed through the following programs … ”

Read more from the NCWA blog here:  Sacramento Valley Watersheds: Regional Collaborative Approaches to Maintaining and Improving Groundwater Quality for Multiple Benefits

New GAMA Program Online Tools for Groundwater Quality Data

From the State Water Resources Control Board:

The GAMA program team has made California’s groundwater quality data more easily available to you. This announcement summarizes some recent developments to the GAMA Program website and to GAMA Groundwater Information System.

Updates to the GAMA Groundwater Information System (

  • A capability to filter data based on well screen interval: this filter is up and running, and we are in the process of adding well construction data into the database
  • User-selected “comparison concentration” chemical level(s) tool
  • Ability to download search results in KML format for display in Google Earth
  • Ability to filter data by Groundwater Sustainability Agency boundaries
  • Public water system well screen information download tool

We also have added several tools to help users evaluate groundwater data in real time

  • A groundwater vulnerability tool using relative groundwater age allows the user to explore relative groundwater ages in California groundwater. Areas with relatively younger water indicate recent recharge and potential vulnerability.
  • A web map showing California’s inventory of Salt and Nutrient Management Plans.
  • The “Is My Property Near a 123-TCP Impacted Well?” application allows users to input their address and locate impacted wells within a 2-mile radius. An update to the nitrate tool is also available.
  • Other web-based tools including a source water protection data hub, a trends tool, and a large set of digitized well construction records are coming soon. Stay Tuned!

Visit the GAMA Program website at today!

Is U.S. Groundwater Quality Getting Better or Worse? It’s Hard to Say

“After nearly three decades of groundwater monitoring, the federal government’s foremost Earth science agency has collected enough data to begin identifying long-term pollution trends in the country’s largest aquifers.  A few trends, that is, but not many.

Two clear patterns that the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Quality Assessment found are that concentrations of chloride and sodium are climbing nationally, while in farm regions in California and southern Georgia, nitrate levels have increased. … ”

Read more from Circle of Blue here:  Is U.S. Groundwater Quality Getting Better or Worse? It’s Hard to Say

Camp Fire effect on groundwater, wildlife still uncertain

From the Daily Democrat:

“The immediate, physical impact of the Camp Fire is plainly obvious to anyone who lost one of the nearly 14,000 homes in the blaze, or who sees the blistered remains of buildings that once made up the town of Paradise.

But less immediately visible are the scars wildfire can inflict on the local environment, including surface water, groundwater and the wildlife population. … “

Read more from the Daily Democrat here:  Camp Fire effect on groundwater, wildlife still uncertain

California’s Plan to Store Water Underground Could Risk Contamination

From KQED:

“As California begins handing out $2.5 billion in state funds for several new water management projects, a shift is taking place in the ways officials are considering storing water. To contend with the likelihood of future extreme droughts, some of these new strategies rely on underground aquifers — an approach far removed from traditional dam-based water storage.

While diversifying the toolbelt of water management strategies will likely help insulate the state against loss, a group of researchers at Stanford University are drawing attention to a risk they say has long ridden under the radar of public consciousness: the introduction of dangerous chemicals into California groundwater, both through industrial and natural pathways. … “

Read more from KQED here: California’s Plan to Store Water Underground Could Risk Contamination.

Toxic Trap: Groundwater Overpumping Boosts Arsenic in California Aquifer

From Water Deeply:

In California’s agricultural heartland, the San Joaquin Valley, excessive pumping of groundwater has resulted in subsidence, damaging crucial infrastructure, including roads, bridges and water conveyance. A study last year from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, found overpumping of groundwater since the 1920s had caused parts of the San Joaquin Valley to sink as much as 28ft.

But groundwater overpumping may have another serious side effect, according to a study published June 5 in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers found that recent groundwater pumping caused an increase in the concentrations of arsenic in the aquifer. … “

Read more from Water Deeply here:  Toxic Trap: Groundwater Overpumping Boosts Arsenic in California Aquifer