On 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.
Not all groundwater basins in California are poorly managed, nor is adjudication a requirement for successful groundwater management. The second panel of the hearing featured Michael Markus, General Manager of the Orange County Water District and Joan Maher, Deputy Operating Officer of the Santa Clara Valley Water District who shared how their districts are successfully managing the groundwater basins.
Michael Markus, General Manager of Orange County Water District
Michael Markus, General Manager of the Orange County Water District, began by noting that his District was formed by the state legislature in 1933, and that the basin underlies 2.4 million people in 19 cities that are in northern and central Orange County. “We are what is called a non-adjudicated basin,” he said. “We have a 10 member Board of Directors, and that Board sets the amount of pumping out of the basin on annual basis, and also determines what the replenishment assessment which is how much we charge for pumping that groundwater out of that basin.”
He then presented a slide of the cross-section of the groundwater basin, noting that they are located along the coast. “We do have and have had a problem with sea water intrusion over the years,” he said. “You can see how the aquifers are connected to the main aquifer from the sea, so from the mid 70s, we built a facility onsite to produce ultra pure recycled water. We then built a series of injection wells along the coast also and have injected in those wells since the mid 70s.”
He then presented a slide depicting sea water intrusion. “The wells are targeted to specific aquifers,” he said. “We then inject the water in and that helps the hold the seawater and keep the seawater in abeyance, from coming in and contaminating the basin.”
As a management policy, we invest in local projects, said Mr. Markus. “It actually takes money to operate a well-functioning groundwater basin,” he said. “We also work to avoid basin adjudication by maintaining uniformity of cost and access to the groundwater basin for all of the pumpers that overlie the basin, and to treat all parties equally.”
The District has no power to restrict pumping; it can only set the rate paid to pump, he said. “What this means is that any groundwater producer can actually pump 100% of their groundwater supply as groundwater and we can’t keep them from doing that,” he said. “We do have a mechanism that keeps that in check, however. We also do conjunctively operate the basin and purchase from Metropolitan Water District imported untreated water to help augment the supply to the basin. … You can’t continually extract water out of the basins – at some point, you have to put water back in.”
“Right now our Board has set the amount of pumping out of the groundwater basin at 70% of the total water demand for any overlying retail agency, so it’s a 70% of what we call the Basin Production Percentage, or BPP,” said Mr. Markus. “What those producers then have to do is that they have to purchase the remaining 30% of the supply from the Metropolitan Water District.”
The advantage of groundwater is that the district charges $276 an acre-foot, whereas Met water currently is about $1000 an acre-foot, so there’s an economic incentive for being able to pump the groundwater basin and for the District to manage the basin to make sure the water is available, said Mr. Markus.
“In order to keep the pumpers from overpumping, we have what we call the Basin Equity Assessment,” he said. “So if they pump over the basin production percentage – if they overpumped beyond the 70%, we would then charge them a Basin Equity Assessment which would then make that water the same cost as Met water, so this becomes an economic disincentive, if you will, to pump over and above the basin production percentage. This is one of the tools in our tool kit that we keep people from overpumping the groundwater basin.”
He then presented a graph depicting the sources of water to the basin. He noted that in 2008 their recycled water facility came online, denoted by the pink portion of the bar. “The Groundwater Replenishment System produces 72,000 AF for the groundwater basin … it’s actually become about 20% of our supply into the basin,” he said.
During the mid 60s, the basin was severely overdrafted, so the District purchased water from Metropolitan to fill the basin up, he said.
Stormwater is an important component of the District’s supplies, he said. “We’re very fortunate in that there is a federal dam owned and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers upstream of our recharge facilities, about 20 miles, called Prado Dam in Corona,” said Mr. Markus. “We have an agreement with the Corps to store water behind the dam and then slowly release it so we can capture it downstream. A very important initiative and something as groundwater managers, we have to look to also is the component of stormwater capture to be able to replenish the groundwater basins.”
Recharged base flows are actually Santa Ana river flows, he said. “We actually have a river that has water in it in Southern California year round,” he said. “The only reason it has water in it is because in the Upper Santa Ana watershed, they discharge their wastewater into the Santa Ana River, it flows downstream and we capture it. Those bars became very large in the 1990s and up until about 5 years ago, but now they recycle more water in the upper watershed, and are discharging less into the river, so less was coming downstream to us as a source of supply to our groundwater basin. This is a tremendous challenge for us, moving forward, because we’re seeing those bars becoming lower and lower as the future goes on.”
He noted that the yellow is naturally occurring rainfall, which is variable.
He then presented a graph of groundwater basin levels from the mid 50s to present. “There have been wet years when the basin fills and there have been dry years when we overdraft the basin as we’re currently doing,” he said. “Groundwater basins were meant to be overdrafted in times of drought, and we’re doing that, but it does go up and down but we manage it and the Board manages that by being able to control the pumping out of the basin.”
“In the mid 50s we were pulling about 150,000 AF a year out of the basin and we’ve increased that to over 300,000 AF because we’ve invested,” he said. “We’ve built rubber dams on the Santa Ana River to divert that flow into off-stream basins, we purchased more property, we’ve developed those groundwater basins, so we’ve invested, and it’s through that investment that we’ve been able to increase the production out of the basin.”
He then presented a graph of historical Basin Production Percentage, noting that since the 70s, its remained or averaged about 70%. “In the early 2000s, it was down to 66 to 64%, and that’s because we were in an overdraft condition during those times, so the Board limited the amount of pumping out of the basin. That’s one of the tools we have to eliminate overdraft is to be able to control the pumping out of the basin in times of overdraft.”
He then presented a graph of the District’s replenishment rates, noting that they certainly have gone up since the mid 50s when we first created the replenishment assessment at about $3 an acre-foot. He pointed out the bracketed years when rates went up from $160 an acre-foot to $237 an acre-foot which was to fund the Groundwater Replenishment System. “The recycled water plant that produces the 72,000 AF was $481 million expenditure, and we received some grants and we did have to raise our rates to be able to pay for that investment.”
We’re very proud of our Groundwater Replenishment System, he said. “It takes sewer water that otherwise would be wasted to the ocean, purifies it to near distilled quality water and then it becomes a source of supply to the basin, so we’re treating wastewater not as a waste but as a resource,” he said. “Instead of putting it in the ocean, we’re purifying it and we’re putting it into the groundwater basin – 72,000 AF, enough water for nearly 600,000 people. We like to brag a little bit, it’s the largest planned indirect potable reuse project in the world.”
And we’re expanding it to add another 31,000 acre-feet per year, he said. “We’re investing $142 million, and this time we just received $1 million in grant funding, but our board decided that they needed the water, so we increased our rates,” he said. “However, that rate was kind of softened a little bit in that we received $140 million SRF loan. We love the SRF program. It really does help water agencies build their infrastructure. That is a very important program for us.” He noted that the expansion should be complete in the first quarter of 2015.
The potential is great for recycled water, he said. “I’m the president-elect of the Water Reuse California section, so I get my little plug in. Right now 1.3 million gallons of wastewater is discharged off the coast of Southern California so there is opportunity, a lot of cities are doing it, LA is doing it as well as San Diego, San Jose – Santa Clara Valley Water District is doing it as well.”
Joan Maher, Deputy Operating Officer for Water Supply, Santa Clara Valley Water District
Joan Maher began by giving some background and history of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves the 1.8 million residents of Santa Clara County and the economy of Silicon Valley. “The District has a 7 member elected board, and our mission is really wholesale water supply, flood management, and environmental stewardship,” she said.
One hundred years ago, before Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County was largely an agricultural paradise know as the Valley of Hearts Delight, she said. “Groundwater overdraft resulted in declining groundwater levels, land subsidence, and salt water intrusion in the northern part of our county along the Bay. In 1929, the Santa Clara Valley water conservation district was formed, the precursor of today’s District, they built 10 local dams and reservoirs around the perimeter of the valley to capture runoff for percolation, so certainly the early leaders in our area understood the connection between surface water and groundwater.”
Following World War II, with the population boom and the growth of industry, it became apparent that local water would not be sufficient, and some areas of the valley had subsided as much as 13 feet, she said. “Obviously if even a fraction of that subsidence was to occur again today with the infrastructure of Silicon Valley in place, it would have a devastating effect on our area,” she said. “The trend was only halted by the importation of water, first from SFPUC Hetch Hetchy project in the 1950s, then from the SWP through the South Bay Aqueduct in 1960s. Water managers knew that would not be enough, so they pursued federal supplies from the Central Valley Project, and the San Felipe division was brought online in 1987, just in time to help the County get through overdraft conditions that were beginning to occur during the last drought of 89 -92.”
“Today our County relies on local water, surface water, and natural groundwater replenishment for about 30% of its supply and on imported water for about 55%,” she said. “Of the imported water supplies, 15% is conveyed around the Delta by the Hetch Hetchy project and 40% flows through the Delta from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. About 5% of our supply is currently met by recycled water, nonpotable uses.”
She noted that the District’s water master plan includes doubling that over the next few years. “We are moving full speed ahead to develop potential indirect and direct potable reuse and will be basically dedicating an 8 MGD Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center within a few months,” she said. “It’s the first of its kind in Northern California, so we’re trying hard to catch up with Mike Markus.”
Water conservation is another important component of meeting the County’s water needs, said Ms. Maher. “Conservation currently offsets about 10% of the County’s water needs, or 56,000 AF. Santa Clara County uses less water now than it did 30 years ago even though our population has grown by 500,000 people. And our master plan calls for meeting all of our future growth in the County through water use efficiency, so we will be definitely reducing our reliance on the Delta.”
“I am describing our history and our sources of supply first and foremost because as many people have mentioned, successful groundwater management is really about successful water management,” said Ms. Maher. “We have implemented over time a very comprehensive and integrated approach that includes development of alternative supplies for direct recharge and in lieu recharge of the groundwater basin through water treatment plants. Water management infrastructure is something that is a challenge for us as well as solving some of the regulatory challenges – everything from seismic upgrades of our local dams to a long-term solution for the Delta. We obviously rely on those imported water supplies to balance our basin.”
“When we’re talking about the Delta with some of the Hetch Hetchy users in the northern part of our basin, they say because they get Hetch Hetchy water, it doesn’t really affect them,” she said. “Unfortunately, they are sitting on the part of the basin that is most susceptible to subsidence if we can’t balance the supplies and restore some reliability to those imported water supplies.”
The district’s groundwater management plan has two basin management objectives, she said:
Quantity: “Groundwater supplies are managed to optimize water supply reliability and minimize land subsidence, and that includes instream and offstream managed recharge, operation of three drinking water treatment plants, conservation and recycling programs, and protection of natural recharge by working with land use planning agencies on development plans in the area, groundwater production measurement with over 95% of the production in the valley metered,” she said. “We currently do not do what Orange County does as far as setting targets for pumping, and having basically a surcharge if people go over their allocation, but what we do is work very successfully with the retailers to manage the conjunctive use of the basin.”
Quality: “The second objective is protecting the basin from existing and potential contamination, including salt water intrusion, and those programs include regional water quality monitoring with over 300 wells are evaluated annually, including our recharge program water quality. There is a well ordinance program enforcing standards for the construction, operation, and destruction of wells. There are groundwater vulnerability studies, drinking water source assessment and protection programs, and then the ongoing coordination with land use planning agencies and regulatory agencies.”
“I think a key to success in our area in terms of being able to manage the basin over the decades have been the partnerships that we’ve had with our 13 local water retailers,” said Ms. Maher. “We work with them, not only to manage surface and groundwater use, but also to develop recycled water and conservation programs and to develop their urban water management plans, which is a very important tool for us as we map out reliable supplies for the future.”
Land use planning agencies, the cities and counties, are also important partners, she said. “Our regulatory partners in protecting groundwater quality include the State and Regional Water Quality Boards, the Department of Toxics and the US EPA, and then finally private well owners and the public are also our partners in making sure that wells are constructed, operated, and maintained properly, as well as making sure water is used wisely and contaminants are not introduced to the groundwater basin.”
We also have another operational partnership with the Semitropic Water Bank in Kern County, said Ms. Maher. “We have banked water there for about 10 years. Last year, in 2013, it was one of the driest years on record locally and statewide, and we were able to bring water back from Semitropic Bank last year so that we started 2014, an even more dire year, with our groundwater basin well in the normal range,” she said. “There is a relationship between our ability to manage our groundwater basin and successful banking programs in the Central Valley. I would just observe that those banking programs do provide an incentive for people for people to manage the basins wisely for monitoring and modeling and so on.”
The County has a couple of intractable problems, she said. “One is the long standing issue of elevated nitrates in the southern part of our county due to historic use of fertilizers and septic systems. The private well owners are not required by California Department of Health to monitor and measure their water quality constituents, so our district has started a program to offer free well testing to those areas. It helps us understand the basin better and helps raise awareness about the quality of water they are drinking.”
“I think a key thing of successful groundwater management is support from the community, and financial support is key,” she said. “Our district act provides authority to set zones of benefit and levee groundwater charges, and use those charges to construct, operate, and maintain facilities, including water distribution systems, the reservoirs, water treatment systems, and groundwater recharge areas.”
The District imposes charges with a process consistent with Prop 218, although there is still legal ‘unclearness’ about its applicability, she noted.
“In summary, groundwater in Santa Clara County is managed successfully because local water managers and leaders and recognized many years ago the need to take responsibility and initiative for solving groundwater overdraft and land subsidence,” said Ms. Maher. “Difficult political decisions were made to import water into the County and to develop the infrastructure that we need for conjunctive management. We have obviously many investment decisions ahead of us, including developing our recycled water supplies for groundwater management.”
“The District’s groundwater supply and protection programs are comprehensive and despite legal challenges related to Prop 218, we’ve been able to maintain adequate sources of funding for these programs,” she said. “Finally, the partnerships with our retailers, land use planning agencies, regulatory agencies, well owners and the public really help ensure that our groundwater remains a high quality source of supply for Santa Clara County in the future.”
Ms Maher noted that the Legislative Analyst had described groundwater management’s regulatory authorities and direction as a ‘patchwork.’ “That patchwork has largely worked in our area through the leadership that has been evident locally, so in terms of changes, one of the first things I’d say is do no harm to those things that are actually working,” she said, adding “I like the idea of empowering local agencies to sustainably manage groundwater.”
Assemblyman Rendon asked the panelists what they would like to see in groundwater legislation or in a water bond that might develop out of Sacramento that might help other District’s throughout the state replicate their efforts.
“Talking about the water bond first, having money in there to treat contaminated groundwater is the key,” said Mr. Markus. “That is a huge issue that we have in Southern California.” As for legislation, “it takes management, it takes being able to tell people that they can only pump so much groundwater – that’s how you get the management element in it. But you that’s a key, because without that, people aren’t going to manage their basins effectively. That’s where the legislature might be able to put some teeth into what the State Board was talking about with their proposals as well.”
“It seems to me that when there’s a lot of water in the state, there must be a mechanism where some of that water can be dedicated to groundwater basins to be able to purchase and refill the aquifers, and I realize that doesn’t happen every year and maybe it happens only 2 times in 10, but if there is that mechanism or a pot of water available for the basins that would allow you to be able to replenish those basins in times of plenty, and I’m not sure what that mechanism is, but I think it’s something we need to think about,” said Mr. Markus.
“Some of the issues we’re struggling with to some extent are clarity about Prop 218 and how that fits into reliable funding source to manage the basin and supports our groundwater charges,” said Ms. Maher. “When we look at other funding issues, monitoring and groundwater clean up is important. Looking ahead with climate change, just statewide what you see is a need for more storage, a need to be able to capture the surface water while it’s there, so that it can be recharged into the groundwater basin in a reasonable fashion. That doesn’t occur instantaneously.”
“As far as allocating a portion of the wet year water for groundwater recharge, there’s kind of a natural incentive to do that if people have groundwater banking programs, if they have a place to put the wet year water and as we bank in Kern County, 10% of the water gets left behind to help that basin make sure it’s held whole in the banking activities,” she said.
The third panel, featuring Lester Snow from the California Water Foundation, Laurel Firestone with the Community Water Center, John Sweigard with the Merced Irrigation District, Maurice Hall from the Nature Conservancy, Paul Gosselin with Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation, and Whitnie Wiley, senior legislative advocate for ACWA.