Groundwater at the Delta Stewardship Council, part 2: The State Water Board’s groundwater work plan, Stanislaus County regional efforts, and the California Water Foundation’s role

DSC Groundwater panel 1There are a number of efforts underway at the state level to improve management of the state’s groundwater resources: the State Water Board’s development of the groundwater work plan and the California Water Action Plan, as well as local and regional efforts.

At the February 27 meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Delta Plan Manager Cindy Messer spoke of the reasons why the Council has an interest in improving groundwater management:  “Groundwater is a significant portion of the state’s water portfolio, and as stated in the Delta Plan, it makes up about 20% of both the agricultural and urban water supply for the state,” she said.  “There is a direct relationship between the health of the Delta and groundwater management, especially in the Central Valley.  If the Delta is in a healthy state, if water supplies are ample, then there is the ability to replenish groundwater aquifers and, in some cases, reduce the reliance of groundwater for water supply.  But when we find ourselves in a scenario as we’re in now in terms of the Delta’s health and decline, and when water supplies and exports are reduced out of the Delta, we find that the reliance on groundwater increases, and in some cases, speeds up some of the impacts, such as groundwater overdraft.”

Click here for more from the Delta Stewardship Council.

Part 1 of coverage from this meeting featured Michelle Sneed from the USGS discussing subsidence in the Central Valley, and Mary Scruggs from DWR giving an update on the CASGEM program.  Click here for part 1.

In this second part of coverage from the February council meeting, Eric Oppenheimer from the State Water Resources Control Board discusses the State Water Board’s efforts to develop a groundwater work plan, Walter Ward from Stanislaus County discusses his County’s efforts to better manage their groundwater resources, and Andrew Fahlund from the California Water Foundation discusses the role the Foundation is playing in bringing stakeholders together and developing policy recommendations.

Eric Oppenheimer, State Water Resources Control Board

Eric Oppenheimer, a director with the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Research, Planning and Performance, then presented the Council with an update on the development of the State Water Board’s groundwater work plan, one of the recommendations in the Delta Plan.

DSC Eric Slide 1He began by presenting a slide showing the portion of water supplies that is comprised of groundwater by region, and stated “The bottom line is that as a state, we’re highly dependent on groundwater and we anticipate that dependency to grow with factors such as climate change, drought, population growth, and others, and so it’s really a key part of the water supply and likely an increasingly important part.”

However, we still have a lot of challenges with respect to groundwater management, he said.  “Those challenges can largely be broken down into two categories: quality and quantity,” he said, noting that the first two presenters spoke of some of the quantity challenges, such as the 1 to 2 MAF a year of overdraft in the Central Valley and the significant subsidence issues.  “Additionally, others have identified effects on surface waters and the ecosystem that is from pumping of groundwater and the effects of drying up streams and the ecosystems that depend on those streams,” he said.

With respect to quality, there are also a number of challenges out there, and include nitrates and other salts derived from non-point sources such as agriculture, wastewater discharged to land from municipal and industrial sources, industrial contaminants as a result of spills or leaks from industrial sites, and naturally occurring contaminants, such as arsenic, he said.

DSC Eric Slide 2He then presented a slide of community water systems which rely on wells where contamination has been detected.  “All the red dots on the maps represent public water supply wells where two or more detections of a contaminant or constituent was detected above a maximum contaminant level, so looking at the picture, it’s fairly wide,” he said.  “You can see some clusters along the south coast and in the Central Valley, but really, there’s a lot of red dots on that map.  There’s quite a bit of public water supply wells that contamination was detected.”

“I want to clearly point out that this is raw water that is pumped by water purveyors and it’s treated,” he said.  “It doesn’t represent the quality of water that people drink, and Californians overwhelmingly get clean water from public water supply systems.”

This doesn’t look at shallow groundwater wells and small systems that typically depend on shallow groundwater wells, and anecdotally in those wells, the water quality problems are typically even greater than these deeper, municipal wells,” he said.

DSC Eric Slide 3So if you were to take all the dots of that map and categorize them by pollutant types, you’d get the following chart,” he said, presenting a chart depicting the contaminants that were detected and noting that the dark blue bars represent naturally occurring contaminants and the light blue bars represent human-caused contaminants.

The first most commonly detected contaminant in that analysis of ten years of data is arsenic, which is a naturally-occurring contaminant,” he said.  “Even though it’s naturally occurring, there are human actions that can make it worse, such as pumping of water supply or introducing irrigation water that can also help those contaminants migrate.”

The second most commonly detected contaminant was nitrate, which is not surprising based on some of the other work that we’ve done in our recent report to the legislature on nitrate contamination in the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley,” he said, noting that gasoline, Freon and other contaminants are very infrequent relative to arsenic and nitrates.

The State Water Board directed staff to develop a work plan to identify the actions to take over the next five years to address groundwater challenges with the goal being to make sure that we’re putting our resources and using our authorities in a manner that’s addressing the most pressing problems, and also to make sure that our actions are complementing the actions that are occurring at the local level, and certainly not counter to what’s happening at the local level, he said.

As a first step, we developed our groundwater concept paper which we released in September of last year, and we just last month held a workshop really as a tool to get public input,” he said.  “Within that work plan, we essentially laid out everything that we’re currently doing, everything that we’re aware of and we certainly missed things that other people were doing, a suite of proposed actions that we plan to take moving forward and we wanted input on those actions, and then a set of recommendations for others.”

The work plan is based on some key concepts:

  • The Water Boards are only part of the solution: “We certainly don’t have the resources to solve the entire groundwater problems that you’ve heard about.  They are very widespread, nor do we have all the tools to do that,” said Mr. Oppenheimer.
  • Local and regional agencies have many of the tools and authorities needed for effective management and are often successful: “We’ve seen areas where local and regional management has been very successful in addressing a lot of the challenges we’re grappling with elsewhere in the state, so there’s definitely a strong emphasis on looking at local and regional solutions first,” he said.
  • Where local and regional efforts are successful, the state should play a supporting role: “Where those actions don’t materialize or they are not successful for whatever reason, we believe the state should one, play a supporting role and two, should also be in apposition of a backstop to taking action where local and regional action just isn’t working,”  he said.
  • Focus on high use areas where problems exist and local management is insufficient: “Our idea is that we think we should focus our resources on problem basins and in areas where local management just is not working,” he said.

DSC Eric Slide 4The concept paper included a vision in it for regional leadership which reflects some of the points I just made but basically it says we envision a future where local and regional management agencies are going to use thresholds and monitoring information to effectively manage groundwater at sustainable quality, sustainable quantity, within their basins, and where the state’s role is really a role of support and oversight, only where it’s needed,” he said.

The California Water Action Plan says that the administration will take steps, including sponsoring legislation if necessary, to define local and regional responsibilities and to give local and regional agencies the authorities to manage groundwater sustainably and ensure that no groundwater basin is in danger of being permanently damaged by overdrafting,” he said.  “It goes on to say that when a basin is at risk of permanent damage and local and regional entities have not made sufficient progress to correct the problems, the state should protect the basin and the users until an adequate local program is in place.  The main point here that although the words are not exactly the same, I would say that the intent is very similar to our vision.  Local, regional management first, backed up by state action.”

There are also 5 key management elements within the concept, he said, noting that any one of the elements could be established at the local, regional or state level, or a combination thereof; there’s no one size fits all approach here.    The five key elements are:

  1.  Thresholds: “These are targets or benchmarks for water quality and also water quantity. With respect to quality, we’re probably looking at things like basin plan water quality objectives and maximum contaminant levels as they are going to be more uniform statewide because what’s needed to protect a beneficial use in one part of the state pretty much is what’s needed to protect it elsewhere in the state.  Quantity is quite different in that each basin is going to be managed differently, and we’re looking at more things like basin management objectives which are contained in local groundwater management plans.”
  2. Monitoring data:  “If you have thresholds but you don’t have data, the thresholds don’t mean much.  You need to be able to evaluate trends, you need to know if you’re approaching a threshold, and you need to know when you’re exceeding a threshold.”
  3. Governance: “You need to have a governance structure in place that is capable of implementing the management tools needed to manage groundwater, and this can be a variety of things.  It could be conjunctive use projects, it could be conservation to reduce demand, it could be a local permitting system for controlling groundwater demand – what’s needed for every basin is going to be different for every basin, but you need to have a governance structure that’s capable of doing the planning work, the assessment and actually implementing the management program.”
  4.  Funding: “You need to have funding to support everything that I just talked about.”
  5. Oversight and enforcement: “Lastly to close the loop, we believe that there needs to be an element of enforcement or oversight to make sure that everything is occurring and people are following through on the actions that are specified in their management plans.”

Mr. Oppenheimer then reviewed some of the comments garnered from the over 75 unique individual comment letters and the well-attended workshop last month.  “We continue to receive input and certainly these don’t represent everything that we’ve heard, but they represent some of the recurring themes that at least I picked up on in listening to people,” he said.

First there was a great deal, not unanimous, but a great deal of support the vision that I mentioned earlier as well as those five key management elements,” he said.  “People seem to think that it was appropriate, the vision, and that the management elements were about the right things that need to be in place.  They are very high-level but they made sense to a lot of people, again not everybody.”

We heard a lot of comments that we did not have enough consideration of the connection between groundwater and surface water and that groundwater pumping can affect surface water,” he said.  “That was probably the most common comment that we received.”

There was a lot for support for local management, but also local management with accountability and triggers for action embedded,” he said.  “We heard that thresholds should be set not only to achieve safe yields, sort of a balance of recharge and pumping, but also to consider impacts of pumping on surface water.”

We heard that there should be a focus on unmanaged basins, not the basins where management is occurring, but we also heard that if we only focus on areas where there is currently problems, we might be setting ourselves up for problems down the road, so we should be looking at areas where maybe currently there’s not an overdraft situation but there’s a lot of pumping or we think there’s going to be a lot of pumping in the future and make sure we don’t get into a situation of overdraft,” she said.

We heard a lot of need to clarify what the state’s role would be but again as you would imagine there was a lot of varying opinions as to whether the state should even have a role when it comes to addressing groundwater quantity or not,” he said.  “And there were a lot of other concerns as well.

We also heard funding is a major constraint, and specifically Prop 218 requirements,” Mr. Oppenheimer added.

So last thoughts, groundwater is effectively managed in some areas at the local level, but water quality degradation and overdraft is still a concern in many other areas,” he said.  “Local and regional entities are in probably the best position to monitor and manage groundwater basins but the state should provide support and act in an oversight capacity when needed.  Also, monitoring is really going to be key because it’s not only going to inform local and regional management efforts, it will help guide state level actions. I think CASGEM and the work that DWR is doing is going to help everybody.”

In terms of next steps, right now we’re focused on reviewing all the comments that we received, taking a look at them with respect to the actions that we had in the concept paper, and we’re working on preparing a work plan that’s primarily going to be focused just on what the water board is going to do over the next five years,” he said.  “We’re also going to be working with and providing support for the governor’s office work that they are currently doing on implementing the California Water Action Plan.”

Walter Ward, Stanislaus County Water Resources Manager

Stanislaus County has embarked on a multi-pronged approach, began Walter Ward.  “We’re looking not just to solve a problem for today in response to the drought, but to really to lay a foundation for the future, for the next 50 years, the next few generations and beyond,” he said, noting that they are looking at groundwater in terms of planning and implementation, and also policy development.

Stanislaus County Water DistrictsThere are a number of existing long-standing irrigation districts with all different types of water sources and issues, he said.  “There are nine cities in Stanislaus County and all of them, with the exception of Modesto, are 100% dependent on groundwater.  Modesto gets about half of its annual water supply from Modesto Irrigation District through a treated surface water plant with water off the Tuolomne River.

Agriculture is provided the bulk of the surface water through reservoirs on the east side of the County, he said.  “OID and South San Joaquin both on the Stanislaus River have contracts with the BOR.  Uniquely, MID and TID on the Tuolomne River have sole ownership of New Don Pedro so in most years, we’re well served.  But in drought, just like anywhere else in the state, we turn to groundwater as our dry year bank.  Any of the domestic supplies out in non-jurisdiction county area are 100% dependent on groundwater as is a lot of private ag.”

There is a lot of mixed use, and groundwater is a big deal in Stanislaus County, he said.  “I’m not focusing so much on where the existing public agencies are, or where the city footprints are, but really out there in that unincorporated jurisdictional county area where we have a lot of private wells going in, especially in particular on the east side up in the foothills.”

Mr. Ward noted that a number of concerned landowners out in that part of the County have filed a lawsuit asking for the County to issue a moratorium, but he noted this is pending litigation and he cannot speak about it.

Fundamentally, this is an information gathering exercise, at least initially, to educate us as to what we know and what we have, to find out what we don’t know and what we don’t have, in order the find out methods to go and acquire that,” he said. “There are silos of information out there in the community, whether they are in public hands or out in private sources that are hard to get to.  And there are institutional barriers, there are confidentiality protections, call it intellectual property, law, I don’t know what it is, but the private people were really hesitant to share their information.  I’m going to try to break that.  I don’t’ know how, but I’m going to find a way.  We’re getting good public involvement in terms of sharing of resources.”

We also need to make sure we’re all talking the same language, he said.  “Oftentimes, urban water suppliers speak in totally different terms than ag suppliers do … we need to standardize the language so we can all talk to one another.

He is also working on taking all the various urban, agricultural and groundwater management plans and synthesize them into one county-wide water plan, he said.  He is working to synthesize organize compile collate gather all these data into one common database into one common place, and is receiving some help from the County Extension.  “Just getting the data together before you can really understand what you have and what you don’t have is so important,” he said.

It took four years for the County to develop a groundwater mining and export prevention ordinance.  “In October, the County supervisors adopted it, but it changed as we got into the discussion and I think in a significant way,” he said.  “Rather than just export prevention subject to a permit, we actually started looking internally and saying what happens even in our own county if there’s unreasonable use going on or over exploitation or harm being caused, either to the aquifer itself or to the resource or to other existing legal users, so this ordinance has moved beyond just an export prevention ordinance and we’re also looking inward at maybe a self-regulatory oversight type of a program.”

Mr. Ward said they are going to struggle with how ‘mining’ is defined.  “The ordinance in its existing construct, it’s just not going to work and I’m afraid we’re going to be subject to legal challenge, so we’ve got some work to do in terms of how we go forward with implementing that particular program.”

The County also established a board-appointed Water Advisory Committee that includes businessmen, city councilmen, mayors, building industry developers, well drillers, pump installers, agricultural land owners, and irrigation districts, Mr. Ward said, noting that there’s a potential for conflicting voices, but all of those voices need to be at the table.  “It will allow for a real healthy discussion,” he said.

The County Board of Supervisors has given us a mandate to come back to them within 100 days and give them a report, he said.  “They want action.  This wasn’t created for political cover.  They want to see us achieve something and do it in an open public manner.”

Stanislaus County WAC StmtYesterday, the Committee met for the first time and formed a mission statement along with some key steps for success, he said.  “The mission statement is planned to be adopted at the next meeting of the water advisory committee, but I wanted to try to give everybody focus to evaluate the status of the groundwater resources of Stanislaus County in order to identify and develop programs and practices that ensure a reliable and sustainable groundwater supply for the benefit of its citizens, present and future, and to make recommendations to the County Board of Supervisors to adopt public policy that empowers such identified actions.”

There is a ten-member Technical Advisory Committee that is the science arm that will be the researchers, planners, and data gatherers that will compile the information, put it into an understandable format, and report back to the WAC, he said.

There are four elements he is hoping to put in place:

  1. Mapping: “Even in this day in age, we do not know where in a GIS based system where all the wells are located.  So we need to map the wells, recognizing that there’s private protection in terms of what information you can publicly disclose,” he said.
  2. Construction – total depth and cased depth
  3. Pumpage data –  “The most critical piece of information in any groundwater management program is knowing how much is being pumped, and it’s the least known variable in every study that I’ve ever seen,” he said.  “We need to get pumping data, whether those are meters, and that gets everyone backing up because they are expensive and difficult to maintain, or whether it means just simply taking capacity of the pump and multiplying by run hours.  That’s close enough.  It’s a lot better than having nothing.”
  4. Water level monitoring (CASGEM) – “We need to standardize how we report the measuring point elevations from which you measure depth to water.  That measuring point elevation is critical because if you measure depth to water, you really want to convert it into an elevation above some common datum.  We all need to start talking about what is that common datum and I think through the CASGEM program that has been fairly well established.”

All of that then needs to be tied into the response of the aquifer system to those stresses, Mr. Ward said.  “Where are those stresses located geographically within the basin, how deep those stresses are occurring, what that stress is in terms of pumpage, and then what the water level response is,” he said. “If we come out of that with a program built around those core elements, I think it will be long standing.”

The County has been working over the last 10 years with the USGS on a groundwater model that Mr. Ward described as a ‘crystal ball.’  “You can take a model such as this and ask of it what happens if you do this to the basin, and you perturb it like this, what’s the general response to that for systems,” he said.  “So you can do long term planning, you can actually manage your well fields, you could use it as a prospecting tool for where you might drill new wells, or more importantly, where it isn’t a good idea to drill a new well because it may have some adverse impact, either to another legal user, to a surface water system, to contaminant movement, to whatever criteria and constraints that you would impose on top of the model.”  He noted that the model is expected to become public record this fall after peer review is completed.

From the Board of Supervisors, we have full political will,” said Mr. Ward.  “If anything good thing comes out of a drought, it’s awareness.  The opportunity is now, it resonates with the public, we’ve got momentum.  They want us to come back with a 100-day action plan this June and a longer term vision next January, to constantly keep them informed on our progress, to change our course, to give us guidance on new steps, so we’ll be going back to them with making recommendations for their consideration in terms of action in the form of public policy.”

Andrew Fahlund, California Water Foundation

The California Water Foundation invests in actions that advance innovative approaches to policies and practices that achieve sustainable water future for communities, farms, and the environment of California,” began Andrew Fahlund.  He said the he and Lester Snow have offered to sponsor and support a series of dialogues and meetings to help coalesce stakeholders around some of the challenges facing the state around the current regime for regulation or management of groundwater.  The plan is to produce a report to the Governor and the Legislature with specific recommendations on how to address these challenges, he said.

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Click here to visit the California Water Foundation online.

To my mind, this has been a long time in the making and I think we’re at a point where the dialog has really changed dramatically,” he said.  “People previous to this were not talking about groundwater and some of the threats and challenges that we’ve been facing.  People haven’t been having these kinds of conversations for at least 30 or 40 years, at least not in earnest. … I think that people have really opened up and recognized that something’s really got to give here.”

Mr. Fahlund said he’s visited Paso Robles and seen firsthand the desperate situation there with a lot of intense conversation, he said, and other places as well.  “I attended a meeting a few months back in Tulare where speaker after speaker got up and talked about overdraft and that something’s got to be done, and people were using words like ‘curbing pumping’, even the confronting the idea that there might have to be fallowing in some places.  People are scared, but they weren’t as angry as they were eager for some kind of resolution or solution to this challenge.”

There are a number of ongoing efforts – the California Water Action Plan, the State Water Resources Control Board efforts, ACWA, as well as the Council, he said.  “So from the perspective of the California Water Foundation, I just want to emphasize or underscore why we’re involved and why we’re interested.  I think one of the advantages of a non-profit organization is that we can be relatively nimble, we can be responsive and we can quickly gather information and bring together parties.  We recognize that strength gives us a role that maybe could be a contributing factor in helping inform the executive branch and the legislature on what options are available.”

Our interest is in long-term sustainability, he said.  “We are approaching this first and foremost from the standpoint that local decision making and local management are really preferable to other options, and that there is in fact a state interest in addressing this to avoid irreparable harm and to really actually recognize the value that groundwater can play in a future of uncertainty and volatility as we anticipate with climate change,” he said.

Our goal is not to actually develop some kind of a negotiated agreement or consensus document; certainly consensus is something that we desire and we would like to see, but we intend to draft a report that reflects the diversity of opinion,” he said, nothing they will then evaluate that to determine possible legislation.  “We expect to deliver a report to the Governor and the legislature by mid to late April.”

The steering committee will be meeting tomorrow for the first time, a group of 14 individuals from a fairly wide array of geographies, backgrounds, including public agencies, including ag, the environmental, and the environmental justice communities, counties, and others, he said.  They are also engaging in some larger stakeholder meetings to broaden the number of participants.  “During these interest group sessions, we’ll also be under taking interviews and certainly would welcome any written comments that people might want to provide.”

We don’t anticipate being able to cover every single issue affecting groundwater in the state of California; it’s just simply too much to do in such a short period of time,” said Mr. Fahlund.  “We are going to start with some of the foundation that’s been established through some of the efforts like the water action plan, but we’re certainly not wedded to those concepts.”

We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with anyone who is interested,” Mr. Fahlund concluded.


Councilmember Pat Johnston asked Mr. Oppenheimer about the State Water Board’s ability to address groundwater overdraft through the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable use of water.

Essentially the state board has authority to address groundwater problems in a few different ways,” replied Mr. Oppenheimer.  “The constitutional waste and unreasonable use provisions are one; impacts from pumping on surface waters that cause public trust impacts is another authority that can be brought to bear, and then water code section 2100 indicates or states that in cases where a documented water quality problem is occurring because of pumping, the state water board can initiate an adjudication, so the state board definitely has authority to address these issues.”

In my opinion, the challenge is these are very broad authorities and they are not well suited to application on a basin by basin scale where you are looking at multiple users,” he said.  “It becomes very awkward and cumbersome to apply those authorities.  Additionally, depending upon which authority was to be used, I’m fairly certain there would be challenges to the use of that authority; not that they don’t exist but it just slows down the process.”  He noted that one of the issues the Governor’s office staff are seeking input is what are the tools and authorities that are needed at the local level to better manage groundwater.  “Likewise I think there’s probably tools and authorities that could be added to stage agencies to simplify the application of some of those authorities that currently exist,” he said.

Mr. Johnston then turned to Mr. Fahlund and noted that at some point, something mandatory will need to happen to manage groundwater on a regional basis, akin to surface water.  “So you’ll have to get to that and decide whether you’re going to make some people unhappy or try to make everybody happy … but since you’re outside of government, you do have the opportunity to make some thoughtful recommendations.”

“That’s our intention,” responded Andrew Fahlund.  Speaking from his own personal perspective, he said, “I don’t think, at the end of the day, that it’s reasonable to expect that a purely voluntary program is going to deal with all of the potential spectrum of problems that we have across the state.  Incentives, better tools, and assistance from the state will carry us a long way.  The current system is in some respects built along those lines.  I do think though at the end of the day, we do need some certainty and some backstop for those instances where local agencies may not have the capacity, never mind the will, but the capacity or ability to deal with the problem themselves.”

The alternative today is not a very good one – it’s adjudication,” Mr. Fahlund continued.  “Adjudication has not a bad end point, the result of it is some kind of stabilization, and it’s some assurance among all of the various parties that they understand what their rights are, but getting from the point of where somebody files a lawsuit to the point where you’ve actually got an adjudicated basin can be quite painful and quite cumbersome.  It doesn’t have to be, but it often is.  … Is there a better way, an intermediary step, to getting to some peace and I’m hopeful that we can find some pathways to getting there.”

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