An Expanded Role for Groundwater Storage
Groundwater, out of sight and out of mind to most people, is taking on an increased role in California’s water future.
Often overlooked and misunderstood, groundwater’s profile is being elevated as various scenarios combine to cloud the water supply outlook. A dry 2006-2007 water year (downtown Los Angeles received a record low amount of rain), crisis conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the mounting evidence of climate change have invigorated efforts to further utilize aquifers as a reliable source of water supply.
“In the future, Californians must increasingly rely upon the state’s subsurface reservoirs and integrated management approaches in order to respond to the challenges of an increasing population as well as larger swings in precipitation and temperature,” states a 2007 paper from the newly formed California Groundwater Coalition, The Increasing Importance of Groundwater for California Water Supply.
Statewide, groundwater provides about 30 percent of California’s water supply, with some regions more dependent on it than others, according to the Department of Water Resources (DWR). In drier years, groundwater provides a higher percentage of the water supply. Surface reservoirs, such as Lake Oroville and Diamond Valley Reservoir, are the show horses of the water supply network, so to speak. Groundwater is less known but no less important. Its potential for helping to meet the state’s growing water demand has spurred greater attention toward gaining a better understanding of its overall value.
“That’s where we see things going,” said Tim Parker, director and legislative chair of the Groundwater Resources Association of California (GRA). “The reason is the difficulty with putting in new surface storage, issues with the Delta and environmental friendliness and cost-effectiveness of groundwater storage.”
Last year’s voter-approved water bond (Proposition 84) illustrates the importance of groundwater to California. The proposition dedicates substantial funds for Integrated Regional Water Management Plans, which include things such as groundwater recharge and management and contamination response and prevention. There also are funds in Prop. 84 to investigate re-operating surface reservoirs to enhance groundwater storage – a prospect advocates say has multiple benefits.
“It appears that if you re-operate reservoirs in a way to release and store water in groundwater basins before the flood season, it not only increases the flood storage capacity in existing reservoirs but also has the potential to increase water supply yield,” said Anthony Saracino, a hydrogeologist who serves as director of the California Water Program for The Nature Conservancy. “You have created an additional extension of a surface water reservoir.”
DWR’s water bible, otherwise known as Bulletin 160, cites groundwater as one of the potential sources of increased supply, along with water conservation and water recycling. John Woodling, chief of DWR’s conjunctive water management branch, said there’s “certainly agreement” about the need for additional water storage but that opinions differ on whether the need can be met by new surface storage, new groundwater storage or a combination of the two.
But groundwater storage has its challenges, beginning with the process of moving water to be stored, finding the right place to store water, the quality of imported water, the quality of water in the aquifer and ensuring proper management, legal and otherwise. Nonetheless, large-scale storage operations in California have successfully banked and distributed water for decades and are likely to be instrumental in future storage.
GRA President Tom Mohr said his organization is calling for more resources to be devoted to “conjunctive use” projects in which available surface water is directed underground for later withdrawal and use when surface supplies are limited. “There is the opportunity to do this in a number of groundwater basins with available capacity [but] we need to move the water to the basin,” he said.
GRA, along with the Association of Groundwater Agencies and the American Groundwater Trust, this year launched the California Groundwater Coalition (CCG) – an effort designed to raise awareness about groundwater issues with lawmakers and the public, interject some perspective in the debate regarding future water policy and to advocate more funding for groundwater storage. “It’s important that people understand how this works and not think exclusively in terms of surface storage,” Mohr said. “It’s really an educational effort more than anything else.”
CGC’s paper says current conditions “demand new approaches to more strategically utilize groundwater storage space available in subsurface reservoirs.”
According to CGC, “conservative” estimates are that annual water deliveries could increase throughout the state by 500,000 acre-feet by using 9 million acre-feet of “new” underground storage (an acre-foot of water is about 325,000 gallons). The additional storage could be realized through reoperation of existing aquifers and recharging water into available space. <
“More aggressive estimates are that we could increase average annual water deliveries by 2 million acre-feet using 20 million acre-feet of new storage,” CGC’s paper says.
The CGC is part of the vigorous political discussion that emerged in 2007 regarding the expansion of the state’s water supply, a dialogue that began in January when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for the construction of two new dams to capture more water, some of which could be stored underground. As this issue of Western Water went to press, discussions had resumed between legislators and the governor about how to solve the state’s future water needs.
The heightened attention to the state’s water storage is encouraging because of the opportunity to blend groundwater within the matrix of solutions, experts say.
“While the history of the state’s water supply infrastructure has been primarily dams and canals, the future of California’s water supply planning will place a great deal more emphasis on groundwater basin operations through artificial recharge and aquifer storage and recovery projects,” Mohr wrote in GRA’s spring 2007 newsletter, HydroVisions.
Urban water providers solidly support expanded groundwater storage as part of an overall vision of water infrastructure investment.
“Our water system is starved for flexibility and the best way to get that is to use surface storage in conjunction with groundwater storage,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). “They are two parts of the same question.”
The discussion about the importance of groundwater as a supply source and a means of storage is nothing new. California’s inverted ratio of population to sources of water has dictated that many parts of the state pursue a diverse and often innovative track of meeting the growing demand. A key component of this continues to be “conjunctive use,” the method by which groundwater is managed in concert with balanced use of surface supplies.
Other areas rely exclusively on groundwater, which has caused some basins to be slowly tapped out, or “overdrafted.” While many groundwater users seek to alleviate this condition, it remains a problematic aspect of groundwater use. Twenty basins have been adjudicated to allocate available groundwater.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data to adequately track trends in many groundwater basins,” Saracino said. “But there is a clear indication that in some areas overdraft is getting worse.”
Management of groundwater basins remains a localized responsibility. Some believe that more active state involvement is needed while others say the best decisions are made by those who sit atop a basin. The disparity in regulation between surface water and groundwater has prompted periodic but unsuccessful attempts to change the law. This year, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, authored a measure that seeks to get a better of understanding of the extent and volume of the state’s groundwater.
Backers of SB 178 cite DWR’s Groundwater Bulletin 118 of 2003, which notes that “in many basins the amount of groundwater extracted annually is not accurately known.” Such ambiguity reflects the middle ground that groundwater occupies: in some areas, hands-on basin management accounts for virtually every drop of water put in and taken out. Other areas rely on less rigid accounting, as long as pumped water is being put to good use.
“Groundwater is not subject to statewide regulation in California,” said Rob Saperstein, an attorney with Hatch and Parent in Santa Barbara. “A bit of a ‘Wild West’ attitude still pervades.”
The prospect of statewide regulation of groundwater is not popular with water users, who are not supportive of a top-down management approach by state government and who point out that groundwater is not under the same legal framework as surface water.
“Groundwater resources are not state resources in the same way the Sacramento River or the Colorado River is,” said Tony François, a consultant to the California Farm Bureau Federation. “The resource protection doctrine doesn’t apply to it and I haven’t found a court that has disagreed with that.”
Regardless of the legal and political arguments, nobody disagrees about the value of groundwater and the need to preserve groundwater quality throughout the state. Intensive efforts are focused on groundwater remediation, especially in Southern California, where the residual contamination from decades of industrial and agricultural activity has left some areas struggling to clean up polluted wells. Meanwhile, some agencies are pulling water from aquifers that were previously thought unusable (usually because of excess salt), treating it and adding it to their supply.
“We are finding that as our imported sources become less reliable, we need alternative sources of water,” said Ted Johnson, chief hydrogeologist with the Water Replenishment District (WRD) of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Brackish groundwater desalination helps meet this need by creating a potable supply from a formerly unused basin. It also removes the salt contamination thereby opening storage opportunities in the aquifer.”
This issue of Western Water examines groundwater storage and its increasing importance in California’s future water policy. For more information on the subject, please refer to the Foundation’s 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 September/October 2007 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart, http://www.watereducation.org/store/default.asp?parentid=7
Groundwater is the subject of this issue of Western Water – one of California’s and the West’s hidden resources. And as Gary Pitzer writes, various scenarios now are combining to cloud California’s water supply outlook. Southern California received a record low amount of rain – about 2 inches of rain this water year! So experts are looking to further utilize the state’s aquifers more as a reliable water supply. Also the unreliability of getting water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is causing more interest in groundwater.
You may have heard that the Water Education Foundation was involved in helping the state coordinate a Delta Summit recently in Los Angeles featuring California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A group of about 50 stakeholders – urban, agricultural, business and environmental water interests – were invited to the two-hour meeting featuring the Senator and Governor. Both agreed that the Delta crisis is one of the state’s most pressing challenges. As our readers know, the Delta is suffering from many ills that threaten the drinking water supply and farm water going to 25 million people the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California. The environment of the Delta is in shambles and one native fish, the Delta Smelt, is headed toward extinction.
Sen. Feinstein set the tone for the Summit when she said, “This is not an easy subject, but a subject that should involve all of California. Whatever it is that we do, we have to do it together, and it’s going to be big and it’s going to be costly.” The Governor took note of climate change in relation to potential sea level rise and the effect on Delta levees. He also said an earthquake would wreak havoc with the Delta’s earthen levee system and urged action, “We do not want to wait until we have a Katrina-type disaster on our hands.”
Something occurred at this event that is rare in high level discussions of water issues. After the prepared statements which included talks from California Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman and Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow, both the Senator and the Governor became very involved in the presentations and repeatedly asked clarifying questions and followed up to get even more information. They pointedly questioned U.C. Professor Jeff Mount who had given a presentation on options for Delta sustainability. He is one of the six authors of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study on proposed Delta fixes. He described the pros and cons of various Delta fixes as described in the PPIC report, and urged that a decision on moving water through the Delta be made soon due to the unreliability of the current system.
Before the end of this year, the Governor’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon task force, headed by former Assemblymember Phil Isenberg is due to release their recommendations in late November. We will be focusing on developments related to that report and other Delta planning efforts at our next Delta Vision Workshop – set for Dec. 5 at the San Jose Convention Center. Watch our web site for more information about this FREE workshop, one of a series we have been holding around the state.
In the News
Delta Conflict Continues Even as Stakeholders Search for Solutions
In a monumental decision, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger Aug. 31 ordered less water to be pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect the threatened Delta smelt. The smelt, considered an indicator species for the overall health of the ecosystem, have plummeted in numbers, forcing the curtailment of pumping for more than a week earlier this year. The reduction of exports could cause agencies to implement water rationing and, some say, cause agricultural land to be fallowed.
But even as environmentalists, water users and government agencies faced-off in court, a diverse group of stakeholders appears to be making progress on developing a restorative effort designed to provide effective short-term Delta remedies while a long-term vision for the region is realized.
The court case stems from a 2005 lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) regarding actions taken to protect the smelt, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993. The tiny fish can be drawn in with the pumped water and killed. The State Water Project had relied on the federal biological opinion to cover its Delta pumping operations. The state’s operation is being questioned in state court. Wanger’s ruling limits pumping from the end of December, when the fish are about to spawn, until June, when young smelt can move into better habitat with more food. The reduction in pumping could be as much as 35 percent, according to the Department of Water Resources.
Water providers that rely on Delta exports are bracing themselves for the fallout from the Wanger decision. Fern Steiner, chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s board of directors, said the impact “will be significant,” and could lead to supply shortages and mandatory water use restrictions. The agency has asked its customers to cut water use by 20 gallons per person each day.
NRDC senior attorney Kate Poole echoed the call for reduced water use. “The key is to use water wisely,” she said in a written statement after the ruling. “Through conservation, wastewater recycling and better use of groundwater, we can keep enough fresh water in the Delta to ensure clean water and healthy fisheries. Water managers have been planning for this for years.”
Even while the impact of the decision is being sorted out, stakeholders are collaborating to craft a long-term solution to the Delta’s woes as part of the state’s Delta Vision process. Representatives of the more than 40 divergent groups on the Delta Vision Stakeholder Coordination Group (SCG) recently presented a list of interim, “no regrets” actions that could be put in place quickly to make incremental improvements until long-term plans are worked out. Among the items are screening agricultural intakes, an emergency response plan in case of levee failure and the installation of rock barriers to protect water supply and sensitive habitat.
As part of an option deemed the “resilient adaptive Delta,” the SCG envisions a “robust program” of channel barriers, fish screens and levee improvements and a “channel siphon” that sends water through selected channels straight to the export pumps. The SCG detailed these items in a presentation to the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force in late August.
At the same time the through-Delta Middle River Conveyance options are being tested, the SCG recommends a detailed analyses of “an isolated conveyance portion of a potential dual conveyance system” including issues of cost and impacts on water quality, supply and the environment.
An isolated conveyance facility or Peripheral Canal, designed to transport water from the Sacramento River around the Delta directly to the state and federal water export pumps, is highly controversial