Maps, Models, and Mystery: Interconnected Groundwater and the Public Trust

Walk into the office of any water law practitioner, anywhere, and you might think you made a wrong turn and walked into the office of your local cartographer. We are a profession that depends on, and you might even say reveres, a good map. Rights to water flowing in surface streams are fundamentally defined by geography, and maps have long been a requirement of appropriation and essential evidence of riparian ownership. In turn, injury to a surface water right is determined by physics, as the topography of the land establishes the linear relation of impacts from other diversions, whether it be upstream (cause), or downstream (affected). In homage to these principles, some hydrologists will orient their maps top-to-bottom as upstream to downstream, rather than north to south. In our practice, gravity is our compass.

Upending the convenient simplicity of rivers and streams flowing from mountaintop to ocean are alluvial and glacial valleys, in which unconsolidated sediment serve as giant sponges and blocks of fractured rock contain hidden stores of oftentimes ancient waters. Through these geologic features, hidden beneath the surface, water percolates, flows, and moves across the landscape. These subsurface waterbodies interconnect with surface streams and changes in the groundwater basin, whether due to drought or artificial extractions, and influence surface flow on a time scale ranging from minutes to centuries. To understand the relationship with any hope of precision, we need much more than a map; we need a hydrogeologist and a whole lot of data.

All of this is by way of introducing two themes of emerging law in California that stand to influence trends beyond the state: (1) the legal relevance of interconnected groundwater to surface flows in protecting instream uses, and (2) recognition in the law of the need to understand and manage these interconnected waters.

Continue reading at the American Bar Association here:  Maps, Models, and Mystery: Interconnected Groundwater and the Public Trust