Preserving Quantity and Quality: Groundwater Management in California
For something so largely hidden from view, groundwater is an important and controversial part of California’s water supply picture. How it should be managed and whether it becomes part of overarching state regulation is a topic of strong debate.
“This is one of the biggest challenges we face as an industry,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, at the Water Education Foundation’s Executive Briefing in March. “ACWA strongly believes in sustainable groundwater management implemented at the local level. Many areas in California are rising to this challenge. In those areas falling short, facing the groundwater management challenge will mean a lot of change.”
Groundwater faces many challenges, perhaps none greater than where the ultimate responsibility lies for protecting the resource. Groundwater use in California is not centrally regulated and the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) believes that state permitting of groundwater use should be considered.
“Groundwater pumping is regulated only to the extent that landowners with property that overlies a common aquifer must share the use of that aquifer,” said Anton Favorini-Csorba, fiscal and policy analyst at the LAO.
Experts say the connection between surface water and groundwater has been overlooked and that integration is needed to protect water supply and the ecosystem. “Unless surface water is available to recharge the aquifers, groundwater levels will decline,” said Carl Hauge, former chief hydrogeologist with the Department of Water Resources (DWR). “That is, when pumping takes groundwater out of aquifers, and there is no surface water to recharge the aquifer, groundwater levels decline.”
In some places, groundwater use is “closely managed” said Maurice Hall, associate director with the Nature Conservancy’s California Water Program. However, truly effective management is only happening “in relatively few areas where adjudication has occurred or where local entities have stepped up to do it due to some other motivation,” he said.
At a February hearing of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, Hall said preserving the status quo is not sustainable.
“In much of the state, there’s no quantified groundwater allocations, no reporting of use; it’s really as if we are treating groundwater as an isolated subsurface tank beneath our property, the use of which doesn’t affect surface water or surrounding groundwater users,” he said.
Users note the reliance on groundwater has not occurred in a vacuum and is symptomatic of the difficulties encountered in ensuring reliable water deliveries to urban and agricultural regions south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “It’s a reality that as we have allowed ag and urban areas to grow on the expectation of a reliable surface water supply that the first reaction [to cutbacks] is going to be to pump groundwater,” said Dave Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District in Fresno.
Unless a groundwater basin has been adjudicated, California landowners are entitled to the reasonable use of groundwater on property overlying a groundwater basin. Surface water is entirely different, with appropriations requiring a permit by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board).
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has called for “equal treatment for groundwater,” noting that “California’s failure to regulate [it] has harmed fish and aquatic wildlife, compromised groundwater quality [and] generated conflicts among water users.” According to PPIC’s February report, Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, “the ideal way to proceed is for the legislature to extend State Water Resources Control Board jurisdiction to all groundwater extraction, and for the Board to require that local water districts establish effective basin management protocols.”
Opponents of that idea say it is far-reaching and undercuts the variety of local programs that are successfully managing groundwater throughout the state.
“Not to diminish the fact we have areas of overdraft in California that need attention, but it’s simply not true there is total mismanagement statewide,” Orth said.
Groundwater is an important part of the water supply for California’s homes, businesses and farms, accounting for more than 40 percent of the source in a drought year. Groundwater is not visible like the large reservoirs and conveyance systems that are the hallmark of California’s large surface water infrastructure but it is nonetheless incredibly important.
“It is the most important resource that nobody ever heard about,” said Assemblymember Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, chair of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, at the legislative hearing. He noted that Texas and California have the “dubious distinction” as the only states without a groundwater permitting system and that even Texas is moving toward better monitoring and regulation.
“We like to talk about California leading; this clearly is an example where on a very critical resource … we need to follow the lead of every other western state and do a better job of managing groundwater,” Huffman said. He is the author of AB 359, which would require the mapping of groundwater recharge areas.
Groundwater makes headlines whenever calls to regulate it are issued or when scientists release data concerning overdraft – the condition in which groundwater is pulled from aquifers at a rate faster than it is recharged. In February, the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine, estimated that based on satellite data, the groundwater loss in the Central Valley during the drought period between April 2006 and March 2010 was more than half the size of Lake Mead (19.5 million acre-feet), the third largest decline in 50 years. The report warned that “continued groundwater depletion at this rate may well be unsustainable, with potentially dire consequences for the economic and food security of the United States.”
The UC Irvine study comes after a 2009 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that about 60 million acre-feet of groundwater has been lost in the San Joaquin Valley since 1961. According to USGS, while the northern and western parts of the valley have seen water level recovery, “overall, the Tulare Basin part of the … valley still is showing dramatic declines in groundwater levels and accompanying increased depletion of groundwater storage.”
A year after the USGS report, the LAO called for a more comprehensive monitoring system to account for the amount of water extracted from wells.
“We really don’t have a statewide groundwater management approach,” Favorini-Csorba said at the Assembly hearing. “We sort of have a patchwork of state laws that tend to provide incentives for local management or to monitor water quality supplemented by local ordinances and court rulings.”
Favorini-Csorba said the lack of system wide coordination has contributed to the overdraft documented by USGS and “seems to send a strong signal we are not currently managing groundwater as effectively as we could be.” The LAO recommends that some limits on pumping be created in severely overdrafted areas.
State involvement in groundwater “doesn’t necessarily mean one size fits all,” Hall said, adding that recognizing local conditions and local leadership “are essential” in successful groundwater management. However, there are some basic requirements “that should be met that are not being met in many areas of the state.”
Many groundwater users do not believe state regulation of groundwater use is necessary, noting that while there are problems with overdraft, it is through local management and cooperation that solutions can be found to ensure sustainability. “It is not fair or accurate to say [groundwater] is unmanaged,” Quinn said. “That said, we still need to raise the bar high.”
In April, ACWA released its recommendations for groundwater management in California – in the process calling for “significantly expanding sustainability-based groundwater management,” Quinn said. The report notes that “while it is true there is no centralized system to regulate the use of groundwater, California has developed and refined an effective system of locally controlled groundwater management over the past century.”
Groundwater use must be put in its proper context as well, users say. Reports detailing millions of acre-feet of lost water laced with words such as “mining” sends an alarmist message that lends itself to oversimplified responses.
“We have to be careful to not allow it to be sensationalized,” Orth said.
Those advocating for a greater degree of groundwater oversight say the need is reflected by the number of contaminated aquifers and the underfunded and understaffed monitoring efforts. “By and large, water quality and water quantity is entirely segregated in the state, which makes it really hard to get a sense of what’s going on,” said Laurel Firestone, co-executive director Visalia, at the Assembly hearing.
Quinn said “the issue is not whether we should do more to manage groundwater in California,’ but “whether that can be best accomplished through centralized state regulatory control or through local initiative.”
This issue of Western Water examines groundwater management and the extent to which stakeholders believe more efforts are needed to preserve and restore the resource.
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Sue McClurg recently celebrated 20 years with the Water Education Foundation. Our readers know that Sue is the long time editor of Western Water magazine and the author of the respected book, Water and the Shaping of California.
At a reception recently held in her honor hosted by the law firm Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard, Sue thanked some of the “water wonks” – the on-the-record and off-the-record sources she quotes in our many publications and informational materials. It’s hard to believe that Sue has written over 60 issues of Western Water and edited another 60 issues! This publication – as you readers know – is a very in-depth discussion of a particular Western or California water issue. She also keeps up to date our Layperson’s Guide series of 15 titles. I’m particularly impressed that in all these years – and through all the publications – Sue has never been accused of misquoting a source.
Sue came to us those years ago with a good journalism education and a strong newspaper background. She truly has been the “heart and soul” of the Foundation – respected by the water and environmental community and loved by our staff. Her particular knowledge of Colorado River issues shines through our publications and conferences on that issue.
In the News
San Joaquin Water Users Sue to Block Commercial Salmon Harvest
Water users concerned about possible water losses to protect salmon are suing the federal government, claiming its approval of the commercial fishing season threatens the viability of the threatened fall-run Chinook salmon.
The suit, San Joaquin River Group Authority v. National Marine Fisheries Service, was filed May 5 in federal district court in Fresno. The Authority consists of the Oakdale Irrigation District, South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District, Merced Irrigation District, city and county of San Francisco, San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority and the Friant Water Authority. The city and county of San Francisco are not a party to the lawsuit.
Commercial salmon fishing resumed this year after being cancelled in 2008 and 2009 and shortened in 2010. Fishing was halted after federal officials declared the population of Central Valley fall-run Chinook salmon to be in the worst condition in 40 years of record keeping. The winter and spring runs of Chinook salmon are already on the endangered species list and are not impacted by commercial fishing.
Projections of more than 700,000 salmon off the California coast in 2011 led federal fisheries regulators to approve the first full-length commercial fishing season since 2007. The lawsuit claims the Pacific Fishery Management Council was premature in approving the 2011 commercial salmon season. According to the Authority, factors such as the lack of genetic diversity may worsen with a return to the “status quo management and hatchery strategies” for salmon.
“Approving high levels of SRFC (Sacramento River Fall Chinook) harvest while the overfishing concern continues, and in light of significant uncertainty, admittedly high bias in the forecasting and a recent history of significantly over-predicting adult escapement, was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law,” the lawsuit says.
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, told the Associated Press that it is “misguided” to claim commercial fishing is a threat to the overall health of fall-run Chinook salmon.