Maven’s Minutes: Water storage part 3: Optimizing surface and groundwater resources – where do we go from here?

California lacks a statewide sustainable groundwater management program, instead leaving groundwater under local control, and while there are a few stunning examples of successful and sustainable groundwater management programs in the state, there are also dismal examples of failure to manage some groundwater basins sustainably. So what are the impediments to better basin management and what can be done to improve the state’s groundwater management? Water law expert Gwyn-Mohr Tully and groundwater specialist Tim Parker share their thoughts with the Assembly Select Committee on Regional Approaches to Addressing the State’s Water Crisis at an informational hearing held earlier this year titled ‘The Science of Storing Water.’


In this region, we have significant institutional issues with optimizing surface and groundwater resources, and we’ve been charged as a region and as a state to be regionally self-reliant,” began Mr. Tully, a California water law expert and strategic water resource planning specialist. “Water code section 85021 states it very succinctly: be regionally self reliant and we will then have better broader state water management and state water reliability.”

Tully 1Mr. Tully reminded that Kamyar Guivetchi had stated that about 66% of the state’s water is managed and controlled by local agencies. “Yet we have an institutional structure that makes it difficult to manage those water assets in a really coordinated and organized manner,” he said.

He gave an example of two neighboring local water districts in the American River basin, the Carmichael Water District and Sacramento Suburban Water District. “Each entity has access to surface water assets; Carmichael Water District has access to license and permitted water rights and Sacramento Suburban Water District has access to contractual water rights and entitlements through other local purveyors in the region, and they both have direct access to the north area groundwater basin,” Mr. Tully explained. “So they have surface water assets, groundwater assets, and on top of that, they are both facing a threat of groundwater contamination through military projects that have happened in the past.”

Sacramento Suburban has expended millions of dollars and has gone into huge debt to create an incredibly good system that has both the ability to serve naturally occurring percolating groundwater and surface water,” Mr. Tully continued. “Here we have two neighboring entities with a great pool of water assets, but they really cannot interact very well. The institutional mechanisms in place don’t allow it. We can have a surplus water year where Carmichael Water District will have surplus water that it doesn’t need to use in its system and would be available to use in its next door neighbors system, thereby letting that groundwater that would otherwise be used be stored in the aquifer and the institutional mechanisms don’t allow it.”

I think from a very simplified perspective, we need to make that ability to conjunctively manage surface and groundwater assets in a defined region such as a watershed a priority,” he said.


Tim Parker, a groundwater resource management specialist, then presented his ideas on how the state could move forward on groundwater and storage projects. “You’ve heard there’s good science and you’ve seen some of the good science for developing groundwater recharge and storage projects,” said Mr. Parker. “In fact, I think you’ve seen the probably two of the best storage and recharge projects and the premier water bank in the state, so these are excellent examples.”

Parker 1However, there isn’t really enough information to make strategic decisions to prioritize state investments in local recharge and storage projects. “I think in large part the data exists; there’s a lot of monitoring and studies ongoing, but it’s difficult for the state to obtain data from all the local water agencies, and part of that is because of the fear of that data being used against them,” Mr. Parker explained. “Groundwater, unlike surface water, is not permitted. It’s not regulated except where you have an adjudication, so this is a difficult challenge but we need to find ways to encourage or find incentives for all public agencies to share data.”

Most of the challenges with putting water into underground reservoirs are physical, economic, or policy; the science is there, he said. Physical challenges are having the surface water, the facilities, and a viable groundwater basin to put it in. “Not all are created equal and it won’t work everywhere,” Mr. Parker said, adding that you need to have sufficient funds to do the right science.

The policy and the institutional issues are a bit more complex,” Mr. Parker said. “First of all, groundwater management in this state is a local issue … and groundwater is best managed locally, so in order to develop a viable groundwater recharge or storage project or a water bank, a foundation of sound water management is needed.

Some areas are experiencing groundwater overdraft while other areas are managed better and proactively, he said. “We need to continue to raise the bar on groundwater management to ensure that all groundwater areas are protected and managed as a sustainable resource while at the same time not affecting that already have sound groundwater management practice in place,” he said.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“We need to continue to raise the bar on groundwater management to ensure that all groundwater areas are protected and managed as a sustainable resource while at the same time not affecting that already have sound groundwater management practice in place.” –Tim Parker[/pullquote]

A water budget is a key fundamental science requirement of groundwater management, Mr. Parker said. It works much like a bank account: “You need to know how much is coming in and how much is going out so you don’t bounce your check, so to speak,” he said. “Groundwater is similar in that you need to know … what inflows will be from rainfall, infiltration, recharge basin underflows, gains from stream flows, and irrigation returns, as well as how much is going out – basin underflow, loss to streamflows, evapotranspiration and pumping.”

When it comes to groundwater management, some areas have all the pumping data they need and others do not,” Mr. Parker pointed out. “For example, under a basin that is adjudicated or under a strict legislative mandate, as you heard today from OCWD and WRD, all pumping is reported. But in other areas where you don’t have those restriction, large production pumping is not required to be reported. So not having that data on a large scale of groundwater pumping makes it difficult to do the science. In a sense, it’s as if you were working blind with only part of the data you need.”

There are a lot of issues and history surround the idea of reporting groundwater pumping, Mr. Parker explained. “Fear that you’ll be regulated, fear that you won’t have enough water in the future, or fear of not being in control of your own destiny, but the reality is that you’re dealing with a common pool resource that everyone shares in a given area and everyone needs to work together, share information and pain if need be to ensure the resource is protected and sustainable for the future,” he said. “That’s one of the key issues with management and recharge.”

Existing policy issues are both institutional and legal-related, he said. “Many of the laws that currently drive water and groundwater resources management were passed in the 1970s and early 1980s at a time when the main driver was cleaning up contaminated groundwater from past poor hazardous materials practices. The Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, Superfund, and Porter Cologne are a legacy of that.

As an example, under Porter Cologne and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the water board permits groundwater storage projects using drinking water as the source water and wells for recharge and recovery or aquifer storage and recovery with a waste discharge permit, so they are using a waste discharge permit to put drinking water in the ground,” he explained, pointing out that the connotation of waste with drinking water is not a good policy.”

Another example is to recharge the groundwater, you need to have surface water and a legal right to that surface water,” Mr. Parker explained. “To recharge and store that surface water underground, you have to file a permit with the state water board, and then you have to identify your legal right to the surface water: how, where, and how much you’ll put underground, the characteristics of the aquifer, where and how much of that stored water you’ll recover and how that water will be put to beneficial use. However, if you want to use that surface water to recharge your groundwater basin to correct for decades of decline in groundwater levels, it’s not considered a beneficial use, so legally you can’t do it,” pointing out that it’s probably part of the reason people don’t talk much about their recharged projects. “It’s a legal issue to them.”

Kern Water Bank Groundwater Pump #2Another policy issue that many state and federal agencies have mandates, policies or permitting responsibilities that date back to cleaning up contamination or to regulate some part or aspect of groundwater recharge, storage or banking project, and in many cases these mandates and policies overlap or are in conflict, again probably the result of history of the law, said Mr. Parker.

So where should we go from here? I think the state should have a complete and comprehensive statewide inventory of surface water and groundwater recharge projects in place, along with plans and needs for future projects, and this could be part of DWR’s mandated 5 year water plan update,” said Mr. Parker, noting that the water plan is being updated now. “I’d like to acknowledge the DWR water plan staff. It’s amazing what they do to undertake synthesize, and move forward with this water plan update in the face of a highly compressed schedule and resource constraints.”

Surface water and groundwater are connected; they are part of the same hydrologic cycle, he said. “One water, as I like to say,” he said. “DWR is separately mandated to prepare a report on groundwater. So they have a water plan report and a groundwater report, which is an unfunded mandate. A simple fix for that would be to move Bulletin 118 into the water plan, integrate them and make put them on the same schedule, and it might be good to give them some funding to do it because right now it’s a really tough one. I hate bringing up funding, because that’s always a deal killer, or it can be.”

It might make sense to establish a coordinating council of state agencies, similar to the steering committee that guides the water plan update, he said. “A state groundwater coordinating council of state agencies with representation from water and groundwater organizations that would be directed to assist state agencies and water districts in the coordination of an exchange of information related to groundwater programs,” he said, noting that it has worked in other states. Priorities for the Council could be how to better coordinate for groundwater recharge and storage projects as well as addressing conflicting mandates. “Ultimately the council could be a one-stop shop to provide readily available information to other agencies and the public on quality and quantity of groundwater around their area of interest.

Recharge ponds for groundwater banking Photo by Department of Water Resources
Recharge ponds for groundwater banking
Photo by Department of Water Resources

Do we have enough additional recharge, groundwater recharge and storage to move towards sustainability and at what cost? How do we pay for it? What is feasible in the next 10 years? Next 20 years? 50 years? This will require additional science, data, and information, and that means data sharing,” said Mr. Parker. “It won’t be precise but it will give us something to work towards.”

It seems to me it might be appropriate to consider developing a statewide groundwater recharge and storage policy that includes some of the background information and the rationale for why we need to increase groundwater recharge and goals, and sets goals for the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 years,” he said. “That would set a bar for us to work towards really meeting that need that’s required because of climate change and all the other issues that we heard earlier from DWR. This policy could also help identify alignment of mandates, policy, and permitting responsibilities to better facilitate groundwater recharge and storage in this state.”

Finally in closing, by addressing some of the policy challenges and developing some goals and a range of funding options for groundwater recharge and storage, California will likely be in the best position to meet the challenges of sustainable surface water and groundwater management, the one water, in support of a strong 21st century environment, society, and economy.


  • Click here for hearing materials.
  • Click here to watch the hearing on CalChannel.
  • Click here for part 1, an overview of water storage in California
  • Click here for part 2, a look at three successful groundwater management and banking programs
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