Assembly joint informational hearing on California’s groundwater, part 1: Where are we now?

hearingOn March 11, the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife and the Assembly Budget Subcommittee #3 on Resources and Transportation held a joint informational hearing on the management of California’s groundwater resources.  Assemblymember Anthony Rendon opened the hearing with some remarks about the importance of groundwater to the state of California. “The astonishing fact is that the California uses more groundwater than any other state,” he said.  “Groundwater is about 40% of California’s overall water supply in any average year, but during dry times like these, that amount can climb up to 65%.  In many communities in California, groundwater is always 100% of their water supplies.” “Unfortunately, many groundwater basins are in serious trouble from contamination, overdraft, or both.  Groundwater pumped from about 14,000 active public supply wells provide all or part of the drinking water to over 80% of California residents, but over 6000 wells have been shut down since the 1980s, many for water quality reasons,” Mr. Rendon said.  “Overdraft is another problem.  Overdraft for groundwater is pretty much like overdraft for your bank account.  You are taking out more than you’ve put in, but unlike your bank account, overdraft does not refer to a temporary situation.  It refers to a chronic situation when even in good water years, the groundwater does not recover.” Rendon 1Overdraft can cause major problems to humans and the environment,” he continued.  “Falling groundwater tables can cause wells to run dry and require deeper and more expensive wells to be drilled.  Dropping groundwater levels can cause water to leach from surface streams affecting surface water supplies for other users, and also plants and wildlife.  Plunging river beds can create flows and scour sediment and dump downstream where it impairs flood control facilities, and sinking land elevations can crack canals and impact other infrastructure, like roads and communications facilities.  In some places, like the San Joaquin Valley, the land is subsiding at over one foot per year.  In some areas that have compaction, there is permanent loss of groundwater storage capacity.” “This past January, the Brown Administration released the California Water Action Plan, which is their state road map for the next five years to improve water supply reliability, restore ecosystems, and improve resilience of water infrastructure,” he said.  “Among the 10 action areas identified in that plan are efforts to expand surface and groundwater storage, including by improving groundwater management, and providing safe drinking water to all communities.” Assemblymember Rendon said that due to the inclusion of groundwater actions in the Governor’s 2014-15 budget is why the Assembly Subcommittee is involved, and he turned the floor over to the Committee Chair Assemblymember Richard Bloom for his opening remarks. Bloom“The Governor’s budget proposes roughly $619 million to begin implementing the plan, and with the advent of the drought emergency, the legislature moved to accelerate the appropriation of many of these proposals in its $687.4 million urgency drought relief package that was recently passed by the legislature and quickly signed by the Governor,” said Mr. Bloom. “Specifically, the package accelerated $3 million in funding to ramp up current year activities for groundwater resource protection monitoring and assessment.  There are three groundwater budget proposals that are still pending before our subcommittee.  $13.8 million in multi-year funding to the Department of Water Resources to continue to gather and improve groundwater information and research, $1.9 million to the water board to identify groundwater basins that are in danger of suffering permanent damage due to overdraft, and finally $1.8 million and $3 million on going to the water board to support groundwater quality assessments in aquifers that provide 90% of the groundwater use in the state.” “Groundwater resources are a critical part of the state’s water supply,” said Mr. Bloom.  “My subcommittee will examine these proposals along with other drought related measures at our hearing on March 19th.  The proper management of our groundwater is of course essential to both our short and long term ability to meet California’s domestic supplies and agriculture needs.” And with that, the first panel was invited forward.  The topic of this panel is “Where are we currently?” and testifying is Jay Famiglietti, Professor and Director of Earth System Science at UC Irvine; Anton Favorini-Csorba, Legislative Analyst’s Office; and Steve Moore, State Water Resources Control Board.

Jay Famiglietti, Professor and Director of Earth System Science at UC Irvine

Jay Famiglietti began by saying that he is a hydrologist and professor at UC Irvine where he directs a system-wide center that uses satellites and develops advanced computer models to monitor and understand and predict how water availability is changing across California, the United States and around the world. Prof. Famiglietti Groundwater Basin Condition_Page_1He said he would be showing some of the results of his work with NASA’s GRACE Mission. “GRACE stands for Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment, and it acts really like a scale in the sky, literally weighing the water mass changes in large regions like the Sacramento and the San Joaquin River basins,” he said, presenting a chart of total water storage changes for the two basins.  “Those mass changes would be due big inputs like a heavy snowstorm, or big losses such as those due to groundwater depletion.  So what you see here are the ups and downs of the basins water weight.  Wet season, dry season … this chart really represents all of the water, all of the snow, the surface water, the soil moisture and the groundwater combined.  So it’s really a view of the basinwide water health.  The plot does not tell us how much water we actually have.  It just tells us how much we’ve gained or lost relative to the long term average.” “This particular chart shows us a few things,” he said.  “It starts in 2002, it ends in December of 2013, and it shows first of all that we’re at an all time low since the satellite began in 2002, and that certainly is consistent with observations,” said Mr. Famiglietti.  “Second is that the water losses over the past couple of years have been particularly profound; they are roughly equal to 12.5 cubic kilometers per year, which is on an annual basis, more water than all human water use, domestic, municipal, urban water use, for all Californians.  Third, now that we have data like this, you could arguably say that although it’s only an 11 or 12 year period, this dry period goes back to about 2006, that we’re in the midst of a long term decline with a few couple of wet years mixed in.” Prof. Famiglietti Groundwater Basin Condition_Page_2When we look at how much of these losses are due to groundwater, in this case in the Central Valley, we see that there’s a huge decline in the last drought from 2006,” said Mr. Famiglietti, presenting a chart combining groundwater storage and surface water allocations.   “The the ups and downs of groundwater storage shown in black, and in the background, those colored bars represent the allocations from the SWP and from the CVP, so it’s pretty clear that when we have enough surface water, the groundwater (the black line) increases and it recovers, and when we don’t’ have enough surface water in the blue and the red, then we use a tremendous amount of groundwater. …   This is the big question with respect to groundwater management: can we keep doing this.”

Prof. Famiglietti Groundwater Basin Condition_Page_3He then presented a slide showing the cumulative loss of groundwater, noting that it highlights the trajectory of Central Valley groundwater use quite well.  “It combines USGS data back to 1962 with our GRACE observations done here, shown here in green, from 2003 onwards.  The colors in the background represent very wet periods in the dark blue, the drought periods are shown in white, and those lighter colors are sort of medium,” he explained.  “It’s pretty clear that our history is to see a little bit of recovery in a wet period, a little bit of up, and then a big down.  A little up and a big down.  And so this is again, burning question #2, is actually the same burning question, clearly the rates of groundwater loss far outweigh the little bit of replenishment that we’ve been seeing, so given that the drought is worse than ever, that our allocations are zero, I think that we are poised for a monumental run on groundwater.

Prof. Famiglietti Groundwater Basin Condition_Page_4He then presented a chart titled, An Example of Water Change from GRACE, and noted that this from some new work he is doing on characterizing drought.  He noted the chart at the top was the same one depicting all the water in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins, the middle panel shows what the average ups and downs might look like.  “So really what that means is that we can quantify at any point in time just how far away we are from normal … and we can quantify with numbers exactly how far away from normal conditions at any point in the year with a number,” he explained.  “What I plotted on the bottom are really the deficits when water storage is below normal for the particular time of year, and you see a few things,” noting that the big deficit periods are shown in green.  “A few things that come out of this.  One is that although it’s a short record, the magnitude of the drought has been increasing over the last decade or so since we’ve had this information.  You can see very clearly the beginning and the end of a deficit period or a drought period.  … That’s saying at this particular point in time, the magnitude of our deficit is 25 cubic kilometers, which is about the volume of Lake Mead, and so that’s how much water we’d need to get back to normal conditions.  Whether that’s going to come from rain or snow, or from recycled water or whatever, that’s the size of the deficit,” he said, noting that it’s still a work in progress.

Prof. Famiglietti Groundwater Basin Condition_Page_5Unfortunately, looking beyond our borders isn’t going to help – just like in California, the Colorado River basin is in long term decline,” Mr. Famiglietti said, presenting a slide showing the total water storage for the Colorado River basin.  “When we separate the surface water storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the groundwater storage, we get the graph on the bottom, which is showing us what’s happening.   With Lake Powell and Lake Mead’s storage, not much of a trend albeit there’s a recent decline, but the important thing to recognize here is that the groundwater losses from the Colorado River Basin in this time period completely swamped the losses and dominated the total water storage change.  They are far bigger than the surface water changes.  The message is that we pay all this attention to surface water management, and while no one’s watching, the groundwater is being depleted at a rapid clip.” “It’s not just the Colorado River Basin, it’s not just California, but this is a map that we published last June of the United States.  The blue regions are gaining water and the red regions are losing water, and so we see very much stratified country where the upper half is getting wet, the lower half is getting dry, and then embedded within that are these hot spots for water use and much of it is in groundwater depletion,” Mr. Famiglietti said.   “So if the data that I’ve shown you this morning don’t provide a compelling reason for better monitoring and management of groundwater, I’m not sure anything will.  If we don’t manage them in some places, they will begin to disappear in a matter of decades, and with it our water, food, and economic security will all be significantly threatened.”

Anton Favorini-Csorba, Legislative Analyst’s Office

Anton Favorini-Csorba began by saying that what he was going to do today was talk about the current regulation and management of groundwater, some of the issues that that causes, and then some of the next steps that we think the legislature should take if it wants to address some of those challenges. “Clearly we know why groundwater is important,” he said.  “The first thing to keep in mind is that California does not have a comprehensive statewide regulatory system for groundwater use.  We permit surface water withdrawals, but groundwater is not permitted in the same way.  Instead, the right to use groundwater rests with the overlying users.”

LAO State Laws chart

There is a patchwork of state and local regulations that cover certain aspects of groundwater management.  “At the state level, most of those laws do one of two things.  They either support and encourage local management of groundwater or they protect and monitor groundwater quality.  The one exception is the 2009 groundwater elevation monitoring which encourages local management as well as protect or monitor groundwater.” “Local agencies have a variety of tools available to them which are used in some cases but not necessarily consistently,” he said.  “In some areas, there are ordinances that prevent the transfer of groundwater outside of the basin in an effort to manage groundwater; other areas have adjudicated basins where something akin to a water rights system is put into place but managed by the locals, and then finally, local agencies have some authority to adopt groundwater management plans which give them some ability to regulate groundwater within their local jurisdiction.” LAO State Agencies

Not only do we have no comprehensive statewide regulation of groundwater use, we have a number of different agencies at the state level that have responsibilities and they are somewhat disconnected in some cases,” Mr. Favorini-Csorba said.  “The two major players are the Department of Public Health, which monitors groundwater quality as a part of its drinking water regulation responsibility, and the State Water Resources Control Board, which monitors groundwater quality and permits discharges to groundwater that might affect its quality.”  He noted that the Governor’s budget does propose transferring the drinking water program from the Department of Public Health to the State Water Board. “In 2009, the legislature did take a major step towards expanding groundwater monitoring with the statewide groundwater elevation monitoring program, CASGEM,” he said.  “Under the legislation, DWR’s required to ensure that groundwater is monitored throughout the state.  The intent of the legislation is to encourage local agencies to do that themselves and submit it to DWR in a standardized form.  However, DWR can step in and do monitoring where there isn’t that information being provided.”  The monitoring is voluntary, but the incentive mechanism is that water agencies who are not doing the monitoring are ineligible for state water-related grants and loans, he noted. There are three challenges for this current system of groundwater management, he said.  “The first one is that there’s this disconnect between the law on groundwater and the hydrologic reality,” he said.  “Right now we permit withdrawals from surface waters, not from groundwater.  The problem is, groundwater and surface waters are very much interconnected in a lot of areas, and so if you’re pumping a lot of groundwater, you can end up impacting surface water rights and that’s created legal conflicts in the past.Anton 1The second challenge is a question of contamination and essentially without a more comprehensive system in place, groundwater overdraft can lead to both contamination coming into a basin from other areas around it, as well as the farther down you go in the water table, the lower quality of the water is, so that’s exacerbating some of the contamination problems that we have,” he said. “Finally, these gaps in groundwater management complicate the state’s efforts to plan for the future, to identify all of its water supply sources and to ensure that we have adequate supplies in the future,” he said. There are a number of steps in the Governor’s budget that would change how groundwater is managed, Mr. Favorini-Csorba said.  “I think a key one is the overdraft management piece that will grant the Water Board authority to help first identify potentially overdrafted basins, and then help local agencies where they can’t manage it themselves.” He then turned to recommended steps for improving groundwater management.  “The first recommendation would be to phase in a comprehensive system for monitoring groundwater extraction,” he said.  “We think that that makes sense to be done at the water district level and that would allow the Department of Water Resources or other state planning agencies to have a better sense of the availability of groundwater supplies.” The second recommendation is to establish ‘Active Management Areas,’” he said.  “This is something that we see across the west, particularly in Arizona and Texas, and an active management area is simply a groundwater management organization that regulates areas that are particularly vulnerable to either contamination or overdraft.  And we think in principle, although we haven’t seen the specific language associated with it, the Governor’s proposal for overdraft management could line up with that.” “The third step that we recommend is to remove the legal distinction between percolating groundwater and subterranean streams, so essentially bring together the groundwater science with the law, so that we recognize in law that they are connected,” said Mr. Favorini-Csorba. Mr. Favorini-Csorba said that if the first three recommendations didn’t resolve the challenges, the legislature may need to consider statewide groundwater use permitting.  “This could be done in a way that might preserve some local control.  You could have the permits be issued at the water district or basin level rather than giving individuals water rights and that would allow locals to set targets for their basins and bring them into compliance with those targets.” Mr. Favorini-Csorba said the transfer of the drinking water program to the State Water Board makes sense as it will provide a more comprehensive look at water policy, including groundwater management. “Finally we’re recommending the legislature require DWR to report on how the eligibility requirements of the groundwater elevation monitoring statute is going to be implemented when it comes to the integrated regional water management grants approved as part of the drought legislation,” he said.  “The question there is just how strictly do we want that enforced by DWR in order to incentivize locals to monitor their groundwater.”

Steve Moore, State Water Resources Control Board

Groundwater is important to the State Water Board, and a couple of years ago, staff were directed to try to place groundwater management in an overall context of the groundwater management activities throughout the state, highlight what’s going on and identify what’s needed to get at the root problems and challenges, he said. Moore 1Where groundwater basins aren’t being sustainably managed, if you use the bank account metaphor, it’s like you’re being asked to manage an account but you don’t know what your paycheck is and you don’t’ know how many checks you’re writing, so how can you sustainably manage your bank account?” said Mr. Moore.  “We learned in 2008 what happens when the bank accounts aren’t managed.  It has a catastrophic effect on the economy that has global repercussions, so I don’t think it’s an overstatement to talk about water in those terms, because it is the very basis of civilization, economy, and everything else.” Historically, State Water Board and regional water board programs have focused on groundwater quality, but there’s an inherent linkage between quantity and quality, so the issue of the groundwater quantity has been an increasing focus for the water boards throughout the state, he said. “At the State Water Board, we’ve approached this exercise with the spirit of encouraging listening to each other, discovering where the possibilities are, and not just restating the problem, but where are the successes?  What tools do locals managers need?” he said. “In September 2013, the State Water Board released a draft groundwater workplan concept paper – a 10-page high level summary document designed to present our ideas on what is necessary for the effective management of groundwater and to solicit input on these ideas from stakeholders,” said Mr. Moore, noting that the State Water Board held a workshop in January as well as several focus groups to receive input from a wide variety of stakeholders. “It was a very high level dialog,” he said.  “We talked about science, we talked about management, we talk about local successes and challenges, so the objective of the workplan is to ensure that the State Water Board and the regional water boards address the groundwater challenges that have the greatest potential to impact beneficial uses of water and to focus limited resources on the most important groundwater problems.  We want to facilitate more efficient local and regional groundwater management and it’s a clear vision.  We want to provide support and oversight where needed.  The workplan will complement groundwater management efforts occurring at the local level and help prioritize groundwater protection actions to be carried out over the next five years.” “We really want to approach this differently,” he said.  “We want to carefully and collaboratively determine where the state governance role will be helpful, versus where it will be duplicative or burdensome.  And together, let’s calibrate the state role to areas where they are most productive. … What functions are best carried out at the local and regional level, and what functions at the state level would support those local functions to keep them healthy, to keep them from becoming dysfunctional where serious consequences on quantity, storage, land subsidence, water quality can and do occur.” “There’s a vision in this concept paper of regional leadership, not state-led leadership, where well equipped local and regional groundwater management entities use monitoring information and thresholds to manage and maintain groundwater of sufficient quality and at sustainable levels over the long term and where local and regional management efforts are backed up by state support and oversight where needed.” The heart of this concept paper are five elements that key to a successful management program, Mr. Moore said, listing and describing them as this:

  1. Thresholds:  Thresholds for water level drawdown and water quality for impacted vulnerable and high use basins.
  2. Monitoring:  Water quality and water level monitoring and assessment, and data management systems capable of determining if these thresholds, the exercised range, the levels of contaminants, if those thresholds are being met and determining trends.
  3. Governance:  Structures with management mechanisms to prevent impacts before they occur, to cleanup contamination where it has occurred, and provide adequate treatment of contaminated drinking water sources and ensure that meeting groundwater level and quality thresholds are managed over the long term.
  4. Funding:  Funding to support monitoring and governance and management actions.
  5. Enforcement:  oversight and enforcement component for these local management agencies in basins where ongoing management efforts are not protecting groundwater.

The paper also discusses potential new actions for the Water Board and for other agencies, but this is just for discussion, he said. Mr. Moore then reviewed some of the comments received so far on the groundwater workplan.  “We heard general, but not unanimous support for the vision and the framework, including the five elements,” he said.  “We heard that we need more emphasis on the connection between groundwater and surface water, we heard that there’s support for local management with accountability and triggers for action, and we heard loud and clear that a one-size fits all approach will not work, and that makes a lot of sense if you look at the science and the different uses of groundwater throughout the state.” “Thresholds should be set to protect surface water flows and not just to achieve safe yields from the groundwater basins, but at the same time, thresholds for quantity need to be flexible, and recognize that groundwater basins are exercised with a range,” he said.  “This has to do with our reality in California of the wide ranging variability of rainfall and snowfall and that we need to use that storage during dry periods such as we’re experiencing today.” The State Water Board will now evaluate changes in the concept paper based on the written concepts and workshop input, and then prepare a final work plan that will focus on actions to be taken over the next five years, with a final plan being complete sometime later this spring, he said. “The Governor’s California Water Action Plan proposes several actions to be implemented in the next five years, including collecting and sharing groundwater data, updating the groundwater plan known as Bulletin 118, increasing groundwater recharge and storage, accelerating groundwater cleanup, and empowering local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably,” he said, noting that there was a kickoff meeting in mid-February to get stakeholder input to identify what additional tools and authorizes are needed at the local level.  “Some examples are legal authorities for local agencies, technical support they may need, changes to AB 3030 which empowered the groundwater management plans in the early 90s, financing, and the Proposition 218 issue of raising revenue to support management and monitoring activities.  Also, the administration wants to know from stakeholders what the state backstop should look like.  That’s easier to work with than the state water board’s current authorities under the waste and unreasonable use doctrine which is potentially clunky compared to what we can pull together collectively and collaboratively.”  He noted two workshops were being planned for March and April to solicit ideas and discuss possible solutions. There are groundwater protection initiative positions included in the Governor’s 2014-15 budget including $1.8 million to fund 10 positions to advance efforts to effectively manage groundwater,” he said.  “The proposal is intended to both assess and address the needs of overdrafted basins where the permanent loss of groundwater or groundwater storage capacity is threatening the health and safety of the people of the state and our future economic well being.  We believe it’s a local issue; the funding and the positions is a start and will be used initially to assist local agencies in some of the hardest hit areas to fill in information gaps, provide assistance, and develop and implement local plans, practices and controls to achieve sustainability.  Recognizing that the current drought emergency will lead to more extensive pumping of our already overdraft aquifers to replace surface water losses, the drought emergency legislation signed by the governor provides funding for this effort to being immediately.” “The Governor’s Water Action Plan calls for strengthening integrated water management,” he said.  “Integrated water management recognizes that groundwater needs to be managed within the greater water framework and not apart from it.” “So as we set out to improve groundwater management in this state, I hope we cannot miss the opportunity to better align overall water management along natural, water shed, and groundwater basin boundaries,” said Mr. Moore.  “I think our future depends on it.”

Discussion highlights

Assemblymember Dahle asks the panelists why they feel past efforts to manage groundwater have failed. “Personally I think the roots of it go way back,” said Professor Famiglietti.  “It’s not just over a couple of decades; I think it goes back to the fact that most of our laws and policies were enacted before we really understood that surface water and groundwater interconnected.  So I think we shouldn’t be overly hard on ourselves.  I think that maybe 20-30-40 years ago, it wasn’t even really necessary.  The population isn’t what it is today, but now push has come to shove and we know a heck of a lot more, and we can see a heck of a lot more than we ever could before.” “I think the funding question is an interesting one,” said Anton Favorini-Csorba.  “Certainly at the state level, DWR is not been given specific funding in the past to do all that much relating to review or standardization of groundwater management plans.  The plans that are submitted to the Department are not always submitted in the same form; there’s a lot of variation because these plans are largely voluntary, and so that limits the usefulness at the state level of some of these to be incorporated into our water supply decisions.” “It does have to go with the institutional framework and how it evolved,” said Mr. Moore.  “The jumpstart efforts were just that, soft money if you will, bond money or temporarily available funds to get things started, but not a plan in place to keep a revenue stream going that would sustain good scientific inquiry and methodical review.  … In my experience with NPDES permitting, if you have that kind of a framework and more revenue is made available to sustain that type of framework, that’s where we make more gains, so by not having a set framework for funding, I think that’s a large part of the issue.”

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