Saving it For Later: Groundwater Banking
In early June, environmentalists and Delta water agencies sued the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Kern County Water Agency (KCWA) over the validity of the transfer of the Kern Water Bank, a huge underground reservoir that supplies water to farms and cities locally and outside the area. The suit, which culminates a decade-long controversy involving multiple issues of state and local jurisdictional authority, has put the spotlight on groundwater banking – an important but controversial water management practice in many areas of California.
Using groundwater has always been essential in the arid West. Now groundwater banking is be-ing promoted as the way to stabilize California’s water supply without the challenges associated with surface storage.
“There is a lot of [underground] storage capacity being underutilized and groundwater banking could be used to augment existing surface water storage,” said Roy Herndon, a director with the Groundwater Resources Association of California (GRA). “Let’s make sure we haven’t missed what’s underneath our feet.”
Groundwater banking is part of a system in which surface and underground water supplies are alternately used so neither rivers nor aquifers are critically drawn down. In a twist of fate, the space made available by emptying some aquifers opened the door for the banking activities used so extensively today.
Groundwater banking is used throughout the West to withstand the swings in water supply. Since 1996, the Arizona Water Banking Authority (AWBA) has overseen the diversion of Colorado River water to recharge basins for later use. According to the AWBA, the bank holds deposits of nearly 2.7 million acre-feet of water. For more than 20 years, the Southern Nevada Water Bank has been pumping treated river water into the Las Vegas Valley’s primary aquifer, accumulating more than 320,000 acre-feet of water.
Groundwater bank withdrawals are sometimes made with water pumped and delivered to banking partners, or through exchange, where increased surface deliveries are taken instead. Such is the case at the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD). During the last three dry periods, 20,000 to 30,000 acre-feet of water were taken each year, said Keith Whitman, water supply manager. The water wholesaler, which serves 1.7 million people, receives water from the Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP), which “makes it easier to bank water in wet years when we have a certain amount of surplus,” Whitman said.
During the wet 1990s and earlier this decade, SCVWD stored some of its entitlement at the Semitropic Water Storage District near Bakersfield. The district can bank as much as 350,000 acre-feet of water. “It’s been a pretty good value for us,” Whitman said. “It acts like an additional reservoir…we didn’t have to build.”
With California’s expanding water crisis, experts say groundwater banking is increasingly important.
“Where space is available in aquifers, storing water underground can be a cost-effective way to save water for dry years,” said a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). “This ‘groundwater banking’ will become increasingly important as the snowpack declines with changing climatic conditions. The current lack of state regulation makes success dependent on agreements among local parties. Groundwater banking has increased in some areas, but much more could be done, particularly in the Central Valley.”
Ellen Hanak, author of the report, said “institutional obstacles” related to the lack of a comprehensive groundwater management system at the local level are a primary impediment to increased banking. “You can’t operate a bank if you don’t have the accounting and monitoring,” she said. “It’s just like a financial institution.”
Skeptics of groundwater banking are leery of the potential for mismanagement and negative impacts to the environment. “I have to say, the nature of groundwater banking is dangerously close to a plot to privatize a public resource,” said Adam Keats, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against DWR and KCWA. “Groundwater law is unfortunately ‘Wild West.’”
Enthusiasm for groundwater banking is tempered by several concerns, from water level and water quality impacts, to questions of ownership. The controversy associated with the Kern Water Bank is long-standing and involves issues of state vs. local control and accusations that holders of water rights are privatizing a public resource.
“The Kern Water Bank is an integral part of our State Water Project and crucial to the future health of our farms, our cities and our environment,” Keats said. “It was built and paid for by the people of California and should remain the property of the people of California, not handed over to a small group of powerful private interests.”
Keats’ group is part of a coalition that includes two Delta water agencies seeking to undo DWR’s transfer of the Kern Water Bank to a group of interests they say has illegally profited from the transaction while contributing to the decline of the Delta ecosystem.
Defenders of the Kern Water Bank dispute the allegations raised in the lawsuit.
“The plaintiffs in this most recent case just have their facts wrong,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and one of the original negotiators of the Monterey Agreement, in which the lands for the Kern Water Bank were transferred to local interests. “The Kern Water Bank was never a functional part of the State Water Project and its land acquisition and planning costs were paid not by taxpayers but by the water rate payers of the State Water Contractors.”
Controversy or not, groundwater banking is essential if municipal water agencies and critical agricultural regions are going to weather ever-increasing dry spells. Groundwater banking hinges on several different factors, most notably the availability of water to bank and the presence of willing, interested parties eager to invest time and resources into the project. Many hurdles must be overcome, not the least of which is the inherent animosity and mistrust that exists whenever an outside agency becomes involved in local groundwater.
“One of the realities of groundwater storage is that programs, with very few exceptions, need to be locally controlled,” said Quinn. “No region of California wants to give the state or any other outsider operational control of or ownership rights in their groundwater basin.”
As a negotiator for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Quinn had the task of working with local water officials in the southern San Joaquin Valley to develop groundwater banking partnerships with MWD that would be mutually beneficial. As early as 1985, MWD was approached by the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, located southeast of Bakersfield, with a proposal to jointly develop a program that would expand Arvin-Edison’s groundwater management programs and provide reliable dry-year supplies for MWD. It took a decade, he said, to properly frame the proposal and work closely with local project sponsors, alleviating much of the distrust and fear.
“It was clear to me at that time that Metropolitan wasn’t going to own and operate a groundwater storage system in the Central Valley,” he said. “The notion of Metropolitan being involved with groundwater storage by itself was hugely controversial.”
Eventually, MWD reached an agreement for water storage. It was allowed to store excess surface water flows in Kern County and call upon them later as conditions warranted. Adequate monitoring and management are important because of the potential challenges that come with groundwater pumping and its impact on neighboring properties. Unchecked or rapid pumping can draw water from adjoining aquifers, sparking allegations of misuse and calls for compensation. “The challenge with groundwater banking is that once it is in the ground the water does not recognize property or political boundaries,” said Bob Niblack, senior engineering geologist with DWR. “The bank’s accounting principles must recognize this.”
State and federal projects will significantly affect groundwater banking because such projects encompass whole water systems, not just bits and pieces. The Natural Heritage Institute (NHI) has analyzed Central Valley groundwater banking and “strongly favors improvements in policies,” said Gregory Thomas, president of NHI.
Long-standing wariness of groundwater management stands in the way of any change in the rules. “The problem is endemic to the way groundwater is treated legally,” Thomas said. “In California, it’s regarded as an incident of property ownership rather than a public resource and as a consequence, the landowners with access to groundwater guard it very jealously.”
This issue of Western Water examines groundwater banking, a water management strategy with appreciable benefits but not without challenges and controversy.
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Recently I spent a couple days with TV’s History Channel in the Delta for a program with the working title “Operation Infrastructure.” The program – to air in spring 2011 from Original Productions – deals with water issues and the need for infrastructural improvements in the U.S. The program will look at several cities that could face disasters and could use an infrastructure fix, for example, Los Angeles for earthquakes and St. Louis for flooding. Of course, Sacramento is under the History Channel’s magnifying glass as Sacramento’s risk of flooding is the greatest of any major city in the country. There are fixes in the works with old levees being reinforced to meet higher federal standards and bonds passed by the voters of California are helping around the Sacramento area to upgrade the levees but experts still agree Sacramento’s risk of flood is unacceptably high.
The Foundation’s Tour Director Rebecca Scott and I took the hosts, Chad Houseknecht and Timothy Galarnyk, to a number of locations – primarily in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Chad is a creative mechanical guy while Tim is a structural engineer and safety expert. It was interesting for us to see how these two hosts viewed the Delta problems. They saw examples where the locals have worked with the state to maintain the levees, talked to local farmers and state and federal water project officials, got their feet wet in habitat projects and explored the state fish screens and federal pumping plant. They heard from locals about the success of the joint local-state funding program to maintain the levees but also learned about the long-term challenges of reliability and sustainability of the levees and the importance of flood protection.
The answer to some of our water problems might lie right below our feet. Part of that answer could be better coordinated use of groundwater. It’s always hard to get people – even technical types – to understand the intricacies of the groundwater resource. In this issue of Western Water, Writer Gary Pitzer updates us on the latest on groundwater banking in the West, especially Arizona, California and Nevada. It’s certainly a growing way to withstand the swings in water supply. As Gary writes, enthusiasm for groundwater banking is tempered by several concerns, from water levels and water quality impacts, to questions of ownership.
In the News
State Water Board Flow Criteria Calls For Reduced Reliance in Delta Exports
The State Water Resources Control Board Aug. 3 adopted flow standards criteria for the beleaguered San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta that suggest more water should be allowed to flow through the estuary to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
The State Board’s action was based on a draft report, Development of Flow Criteria for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecosystem, which notes that while several factors are responsible for the decline, bringing the Delta back to a state of robustness is “fundamentally inconsistent with continuing to move large volumes of water through the Delta for export.” The report was ordered by the Legislature as part of the 2009 Water Package. The flow criteria is to help with the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
The report notes that while “recent Delta flows are insufficient to support native Delta fishes for today’s habitats,” and that flow modification “is one of the immediate actions available,” the links between flows and fish response “are often indirect and are not fully resolved.”
The report recommends dedicating 75 percent of natural runoff to Delta outflow from January through June; 75 percent of runoff for Sacramento River inflow and 60 percent for San Joaquin River inflow in the winter and spring; fall outflows to maintain brackish water habitat in the Delta in wetter years; and positive flows or low reverse flows in Delta channels in most years. Historic flows over the last 18 to 22 years have been about 30 percent in drier years to almost 100 percent of unimpaired flows in wetter years for Delta outflows; about 50 percent on average from April through June for Sacramento River inflows and about 20 percent in drier years to almost 50 percent in wetter years for San Joaquin River inflows, the report says.
Environmentalists welcomed the report’s findings.
“The Board’s flow report confirms what scientists have been telling us for years,” said Gary Bobker, program director for The Bay Institute. “The lack of freshwater flow is one of the root causes of the collapse of the Delta and San Francisco Bay ecosystems, and large-scale flow improvements are one of the most critical elements needed to solve those problems.”
Central Valley interests oppose what they view as efforts to undermine the amount of water they receive via Delta exports.
Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said the report “provides little in the way of a solution to restoring Delta ecosystems,” and “did not look at broader issues,” such as habitat, water quality and invasive species.
“The report stated that there is a ‘need for an integrated approach to management of the Delta,’” Wade said. “This clearly indicates that the State Board understands that fixing the Delta cannot be achieved by simply adding more water.”
The report notes that “none of [its] determinations … have regulatory or adjudicatory effect,” and that “any process with regulatory or adjudicative effect must take place through the State Water Board’s water quality control planning, water rights processes, or public trust proceedings in conformance with applicable law.”