California Groundwater: Managing A Hidden Resource
When you drink the water, remember the spring. - Chinese proverb
Water is everywhere. Viewed from outer space, the Earth radiates a blue glow from the oceans that dominate its surface. Atop the sea and land, huge clouds of water vapor swirl around the globe, propelling the weather system that sustains life. Along the way, water, which an ancient sage called “the noblest of elements,” transforms from vapor to liquid and to solid form as it falls from the atmosphere to the surface, trickles below ground and ultimately returns skyward.
Sometimes it is the water we can’t see that is the most important. Of all the fresh water on the planet, much less than 1 percent is held as surface water in lakes and streams. Beyond the countless gallons of water locked away in glaciers and ice caps lies groundwater, a vast, hidden resource that is essential to supply a growing, thirsty population.
In California, where rainfall is more often than not a welcome visitor, those who first arrived to cultivate the land were amazed at the plentiful water that flowed from the mountains in the early spring. But as the torrent slowed, homesteaders quickly learned to tap the vast system of fresh water that lies beneath the ground.
“The importance of groundwater to the State’s development may have been underestimated at the beginning of the 20th century,” states a draft of the California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) 2003 report, California’s Ground Water (Bulletin 118). “At that time groundwater was seen largely as just a convenient resource that allowed for settlement in nearly any part of the state, given groundwater’s widespread occurrence.”
Today, the belief of groundwater’s endless availability has given way to the realization that key management activities are necessary to ensure its availability and to protect its quality.
“We’re just beginning to touch the tip of the iceberg in terms of managing groundwater for the long-term,” said state Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden. “What’s going to project better management of basins is when you have the realization that you have to be able to sustain groundwater . . . if we are to meet existing and future water needs.”
Groundwater is a major water supply component in California, which withdraws about 13 billion gallons each day to satisfy its divergent needs, from new homes in the inland valleys to the high tech industries of the Silicon Valley and vast swaths of farmland. Overall, about one-half of the state’s population depends on groundwater for at least part its drinking water. The demand has contributed to overdraft in many groundwater basins, prompting a renewed emphasis on sustainable management practices for the hundreds of groundwater basins up and down the state.
“There’s no doubt of the increased awareness that groundwater management is crucial toward managing the overall resource,” said Anthony Saracino, a hydrogeologist and principal with Saracino-Kirby-Snow. “People are keenly aware of that now and the issue is how do we comply with the intricate tangle of water law and hydrologic reality and still manage the resource on a system level.”
Observers say the role of groundwater in the state’s supply outlook is gaining importance, ever more so as communities grapple with the effects of degrading groundwater quality and declining water levels in groundwater basins. Historically, communities in southern California have been more involved in groundwater management than those up north, often because of shrinking supplies and groundwater quality issues such as sea water intrusion.
“The L.A. basin got a handle on it early,” said Krista Clark, regulatory affairs specialist for the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). “Now they’re moving on to . . . how to maintain an aquifer and making it top quality.”
Although they are inextricably linked through the hydrologic cycle, groundwater and surface water are administered separately in California, a scenario that some say is counterintuitive given the interconnection.
“Scientific uncertainty attends many disputes over whether pumping will have a specific impact on a particular river or spring,” said University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon in his 2002 book, Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters. “Some of this debate is in good faith, an honest disagreement about what the evidence suggests and the computer models predict.”
From time to time, California policy makers have revisited the idea of fostering a comprehensive plan for groundwater management, each time with fruitless results. Twenty-five years ago, then-Gov. Jerry Brown convened a panel of experts to investigate the state’s water rights law and the possible improvements to be made. After extensive inquiry, the group found that groundwater was vulnerable and that “given the array of ideas . . . that have been implemented in other states, it appears that California could develop more effective institutions to foster long-term protection of groundwater quality and quantity.”
But the notion of overarching state control was an “anathema” to farming interests, which urged the Legislature not to proceed with the panel’s recommendations, said Harrison “Hap” Dunning, a retired law professor who serves on the board of The Bay Institute of San Francisco and who participated on the Brown administration’s water panel. Instead of focusing on existing water rights, some panelists preferred to examine water supply alternatives, he said.
Indeed, other states in the West, including Arizona, have instituted regulatory oversight for groundwater, although the mere presence of legal mandates has not always halted the pace of groundwater overdraft. Today, it is generally accepted in California that management of groundwater basins is best achieved at the local level, where users and regulators are the most familiar with the issues in front of them.
“There’s probably more groundwater management than people realize, it’s just not documented,” said Carl Hauge, chief hydrogeologist for DWR. “For local users, it has proven successful and it is helping to meet local water needs.”
The issue of state oversight in California arose most recently in 2002 with publication of the Sax Report, a controversial document that said the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) has the authority to regulate groundwater when its extraction would have an “appreciable and direct impact” on a surface stream. Critics scoffed at the assumption and vowed that a long series of legal battles would result if Sax’s recommendations were followed.
State Board Chair Art Baggett, who last year reassured the water community there are no plans for his agency to regulate groundwater use, said the law “is real clear” on the State Board’s role and that augmentation would have to come through new legislation or possibly constitutional amendment.
“The reality is groundwater accounts for 40 percent of the water supply and the cost and time to adjudicate it would be staggering,” he said.
“Regulation raises the hackles on everybody because groundwater is considered a private right although it’s a public resource,” said Tim Parker, a hydrogeologist and legislative chair of the Groundwater Resources Association of California (GRA), a membership organization that disseminates technical and educational information on state and local groundwater issues to its members, policy makers and the general public.
In addition to questions of groundwater quantity, the matter of groundwater quality has taken on significant prominence in ongoing management discussions because of the discovery of pollution in areas that rely heavily on groundwater for municipal supplies. Individual regions are beginning to map the extent of the problem, but “unfortunately, comprehensive information regarding California’s groundwater quality and quantity is lacking,” according to a March 2003 report by the State Board. “This lack of information impairs the ability of regulators and the public to protect and manage the state’s groundwater basins/subbasins.”
This issue of Western Water examines the issue of California groundwater management, in light of recent attention focused on the subject through legislative actions and the release of the draft Bulletin 118. In addition to providing an overview of groundwater and management options, it offers a glimpse of what the future may hold and some background information on groundwater hydrology and law. More extensive background information on California groundwater is available in the Foundation’s newly updated Layperson’s Guide to Groundwater.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the July/August 2003 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
Once in a while I get reminded of how important groundwater is as a drinking water source. This issue of Western Water covers the philosophy and politics of groundwater management issues in California. These types of discussions are necessary for Californians as we continue to define how we manage this important resource. However, these discussions are a luxury in many countries.
All over the developing world, there are major problems getting safe drinking water supplies to rural and urban residents. Much of that drinking water comes from groundwater. Every day some 50,000 people, mostly women and children, die as a result of polluted water and inadequate sanitation. From my work with Water for People, an organization dedicated to helping people in developing countries obtain safe drinking water, I know it’s difficult to achieve social progress if a family has to spend a major portion of their day just carrying drinking water to their home. (Try this experiment – walk around for 30 minutes with two buckets of water. Add a 10-plus pound sack of potatoes and pretend you’re also carrying an infant! Yes, it’s very heavy and tiring.)
Over 10 million person hours are spent every year by women and young girls carrying water from distant sources. Obviously girls and women cannot go to school if a major portion of their time is spent carrying water to their homes for cooking, laundry and sanitation. So two-thirds of the 113 million out-of-school children in the developing world are girls. And for many reasons, girls’ education is one of the most effective investments in development a country can make.
The need for dependable, affordable, clean water supplies was brought home recently when some of the Foundation staff met with a delegation of women governmental leaders from various African countries. We were discussing the importance of safe drinking water in our countries and public education about water. Several of them related the experience of Americans giving them bottles of water from Fiji. The women could not fathom the expense to bring water from the South Pacific to the United States and put it in tiny bottles. We told them about convenience and taste issues in the United States. But they asked us, “Why would people go to this trouble – and expense – for such a product from so far away when you have clean water here?” In Africa, costly bottled water, they said, is the only choice for the urban poor where there are no wells or water pipes to their slum shacks. That’s why the women want to construct local wells and surface water systems in their communities. Such locally available water supplies are the goal of Water for People. Visit their web site for more information about their programs, www.waterforpeople.org.
In the News
Fish vs. Farmers Fight Again Makes Headlines in Klamath Basin
The struggle to maintain water for competing interests in the Klamath River Basin again rose to prominence in June after farmers were nearly cut off from irrigation water to maintain habitat for endangered fish. The proposed action, which was averted after political maneuverings reached the highest level, was the latest entry in the “fish vs. farmers” debate that has fueled controversy throughout the river basin.
The problem originated in April as a series of spring storms inundated the mountains with plentiful snowfall, boosting what had been a sagging water year. The resulting runoff prompted federal officials June 13 to reclassify the status of the water year from “dry” to “below normal.” However, inflows to Upper Klamath Lake were flat, the result of upstream diversions as well as the carry over from previous years of drought.
Using the Klamath Basin biological opinion as its guide, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that the lake level should be held at an average of the two water year types, a reading 5 inches higher than in a “dry” weather year. For the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau), maintaining that level meant the possibility of shutting down diversions from Upper Klamath to the Project for five days. Eventually swayed by consultation with high-level officials, local management decided against the curtailment but emphasized that “aggressive” conservation measures must be applied.
“For the time being, the short-term problem has been solved, but we must start working immediately to avoid a similar problem at the end of [July],” said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association.
The feared loss of water set off a flurry of activity as farmers sought to preserve the crops already in the ground. Several arguments were put forth against halting the irrigation diversion, including the assertion that the elimination of flows would ultimately do more harm than good.
“When you shut down the Project for five days, by the time you fire it up again and recharge the canals, customers at the tail end of the delivery system will able to wait several more days until they get water,” said Dave Solem, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District. “The demand posed by desperate farmers who haven’t irrigated in over a week would drop the lake level like a rock.”
In rapid order, discussions escalated from the Klamath region to Washington, D.C., with Bureau officials seeking a course to preserve lake levels while avoiding the irrigation shutoff. Meanwhile, congressional representatives from southern Oregon and northern California received an earful from their constituents, who pleaded that a shutdown of the system would cause no less than an economic catastrophe. Once the upheaval subsided, Rep. Greg Walden, R-OR, whose district includes the Klamath Basin, and other lawmakers launched an inquiry with Interior Secretary Gale Norton to uncover the justification for the Bureau’s actions.
Environmentalists say the near-crisis shows that the lake levels established for Upper Klamath Lake are inadequate to balance all the demands for water and that serious steps need to be taken to reduce the pull on what they say is an overallocated system. “This highlights the fundamental problem of too many promises for water and not enough water to go around,” said Bob Hunter, staff attorney for WaterWatch in Medford, Ore. “We need to change the status quo if we are to solve the problems in the Basin.”