Assembly joint informational hearing on California’s groundwater, part 3: Stakeholder perspectives on where should we go from here

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.

In this last segment of coverage from the hearing, a wide variety of stakeholders gave their perspective on the problems and potential solutions for better management of the state's groundwater resources.  On this panel were Lester Snow from the California Water Foundation, Laurel Firestone with the Community Water Center, Paul Gosselin with the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation, Maurice Hall with the Nature Conservancy, John Sweigard with the Merced Irrigation District, and Whitnie Wiley with the Association of California Water Agencies.

(Note: links to part 1 and part 2 are at the end of this post.)

Lester Snow, Executive Director of the California Water Foundation

Lester Snow began by saying that the California Water Foundation is a non-profit with the objective of sustainable water management for California, and groundwater fits right in the middle of that.

cwf logo

Click here to visit the California Water Foundation online.

I think we’re at a period of uncommon interest in groundwater, and I consider it a window of opportunity,” he said.  “There have been efforts to deal with this problem over the last six decades, and none of them have materialized in the kind of fashion that we want.  I would hasten to remind people that the two biggest projects in the state of California, the Central Valley Project authorized in 1938 and the State Water Project authorized in 1960, both had as part of their rationale, putting an end to groundwater overdraft in California.  It didn’t work because it didn’t complete the picture here.”

The cumulative overdraft, our deficit spending of groundwater, is over 122 million acre-feet.  “That’s Lake Tahoe,” said Mr. Snow.  “That’s water that we’ve taken out of our groundwater resources in the Central Valley and not replaced.  Thirty-plus feet of land subsidence.  We have all of this evidence that something’s not going right.”

There is a whole array of water management approaches, from adjudications which take decades to complete to special act districts, and then no formal management, which is the majority of groundwater pumping in California, and we are seeing accelerated declines, he said.

Groundwater is by far the most effective drought buffer that we have,” said Mr. Snow.  “If we sustainably manage our groundwater resources and if local managers are given sufficient authority, not only to manage but to store water, and then protect the water when they store it.  There’s nothing worse than putting a lot of money into a groundwater storage program and then somebody else comes along and pumps the water that you stored.

Getting a hold of our groundwater resources and sustainably managing them is the key to sustaining globally competitive agriculture in this state,” he said.  “We have major agricultural production areas that are in high overdraft areas of rapidly declining water supplies.  If we don’t do something about that, we will lose some of the most effective and efficient agriculture in the world.”

Part 3 Snow 2Sustainable groundwater management is best achieved through local and regional management, and local and regional empowerment, said Mr. Snow.  “We have to give local and regional agencies the authority to manage on a sub-basin level.  You can’t manage half of a basin sustainably when somebody else is overpumping the other half, so we have to manage on sub-basin level.  We have to provide effective tools and authorities, and that means that local entities have the clear authority to allocate groundwater, to limit pumping, to levy fees, and to monitor and require reporting.”

We have to provide very clear definitions,” said Mr. Snow.  “What is sustainable management mean?  We can all nod at that but it has to be clear exactly what that means.  We need to define better the state role.  Clearly the state needs to provide technical assistance, data, and analysis and support for managing some of these basins.”

There needs to be financial assistance from the state, both in terms of the bond – it has to clearly contain funds that would be available for better groundwater management, I hear 218 everywhere I go and talk about groundwater, in dealing with stormwater recharge in urban areas, and dealing with multiple benefit projects in non-urban areas,” he said.

We have to define precisely the when and how of state intervention,” he said.  “There seems to be broad agreement on the need for state intervention should the locals not pick up the tools they’ve been provided.  We need to know when that will happen and how that will happen.”

Finally, as some of you are aware, the California Water Foundation has initiated a sustainable groundwater dialog and we’re doing that in concert with some of the administration’s efforts,” he said.  “It’s a broad based engagement intended to provide a set of detailed recommendations on these topics to the administration and to the legislature by the middle of April, and we hope to talk with many of you as we move forward on this.”

This is an opportunity we cannot let go one more time.  We have to get our arms around sustainable management and start preparing for the next drought,” concluded Mr. Snow.

Laurel Firestone, Co-Executive Director of the Community Water Center

Laurel Firestone began by saying that through the Community Water Center, she’s been working for about a decade now with communities in the San Joaquin Valley that lack access to safe clean and affordable drinking water.

community water center logo

Click here to visit the Community Water Center online.

We are already at a crisis point with our most vulnerable communities,” she said.  “We are already working with families and moms who have literally lost all water supply to their homes and have young children, and we are looking for immediate access to safe drinking water for whole communities who are about to lose the one well for their drinking water source.”

The impacts of these problems disproportionally impact low income communities, small rural communities, primarily Latino communities and communities of color,” she said.  “And so when we think about how we solve these, we need to make sure that the way that we address them and that it doesn’t exacerbate existing disproportionate and disparate impacts.”

We have been working locally, regionally, and on state levels to address challenges for years, and we agree it can only be addressed locally and with state action, she said.  “But in order for regional entities to be able to address this problem, they need to be politically equipped to be able to address these challenges.  Part of that means making sure that their governing body or their political jurisdictional mandates are truly inclusive, that the state role is clear and acting on standards to ensure that floor for everybody and ensure some basic equity in things like access to a safe, clean, affordable drinking water supply, ensuring that there’s an enforcement mechanisms and oversight, and then public and transparent data and evaluation of that data.

Part 3 Laurel 1She said that getting access to data is a problem, and having data is a threshold tool needed to be able to address these problems, she said.  “We’re not going to be able to solve this problem if we continue to make everyone, whether it’s the public or the state or local managers that are trying to address this problem, squint really hard and not see the real things that are going on,” said Ms. Firestone.

Funding is important, she said.  “Two years ago, there was a recommendation saying that $20 to 30 million a year is needed just to address the nitrate contamination in two small basins alone but no funding source has been identified to do that,” she said, noting that there are funding challenges particularly for operations & maintenance and ensuring affordability.

Promoting more regional solutions and economies of scale to be able to address this is vital,” she said.  “There’s a state role for that, there’s a local role for that, and we look forward to being part of this,” Ms. Firestone concluded.

Paul Gosselin, Director of Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation

Paul Gosselin began by giving some background on Butte County.  “Butte County is an agricultural county.  We’re home to Chico, Oroville, Paradise, Biggs, and Gridley communities. It is an agricultural community,” he said.  “We’re the 18th largest agricultural county in the state.  We have over $700 million in gross production.  It’s a diverse agricultural base predominantly dominated by orchards to the north of the county and to the south, primarily rice, and also wildlife refuges.”

Part 3 Gosselin 1Butte County water demand is about 1.5 million acre-feet, of which one million is met through surface water deliveries, he said.  The water districts to the south in the rice area hold settlement contracts, and they have water rights that predated the state and federal water projects going in, he said.   Ninety percent of the water demand is agricultural.

We do have four sub basins, with the sub-basins the unit of management that we look at,” he said.  “We manage those and look at those even on a sub-inventory unit basis, and we break them down on the valley floor down to sixteen sub-units,” noting that even in sub-units, the characteristics can be vastly different, so sometimes you need to go down to even a more refined closer look when you’re looking at management.

It was the drought in the 90s that got the people and agriculturalists taking on water management challenges, he said.  “When the drought was faced in the 90s, water districts, independent growers, the communities, and the counties in the region banded together and formed Butte Basin Water Users Association among themselves,” he said.  “Principally they were looking at how to get a better handle at managing and protecting the water resources for our region, our economy and our environment.  They developed a Butte Basin groundwater model which we’re still using today.  They did a number of activities to assess and evaluate the basin and it became the foundation for how Butte County and others in the region manage and coordinate water activities.” He noted that the organization was in place for 20 years before its activities were taken over by the County and other regional programs.

The second thing that came out of the drought was the groundwater conservation ordinance in 1996 called “Chapter 33”, said Mr. Gosselin.  “The primary piece of that was A groundwater substitution permit process that the County was going to administer for transfers, but it also established quarterly monitoring of the basin, both for groundwater elevation, subsidence, and water quality for saline intrusion, and also an annual groundwater status report to characterize the status of the basin.” He noted that in the mid-90s a formal Water Commission and Technical Advisory Committee was formed, and the County Department in 1999.

Out of that what came was the County’s focus on managing water both within the County but also regionally,” he said.  “We developed a four county MOU within our region that led to the formation of the Northern Sacramento Valley IRWM group that has six counties now.  The County is a State Water Project contractor so we have that as part of our portfolio, but we are principally looking to manage the basin.  We have a groundwater management plan that encompasses the entire county except for the districts who have their own groundwater management plan, and there’s close coordination with them.”

We’ve been doing quarterly monitoring in coordination with DWR’s northern region in close partnership,” said Mr. Gosselin, “and we’re covering the CASGEM program for the entire county.”  Other tools they have include the Butte Basin groundwater model and the Water Inventory Analysis, a water budget that was completed in 2000.

We also included an optional groundwater resource element in the County’s 2010 General Plan update that included promotion and protecting groundwater recharge through the development process, he said.  “In that we had a couple key pieces, one was to promote groundwater recharge and protect groundwater recharge through the development process, and also to try to identify significant developments and require additional assessments on groundwater impacts from those developments, as well as require low impact development.”

In the ten years since our water budget was done, we’ve seen groundwater elevations in some areas continue to decline in those areas outside of districts that are dependent on groundwater,” he said.  “The city of Chico is 100% dependent on groundwater.  A lot of the orchardist areas are dependent on groundwater, so the question for us was trying to evaluate what was the cause.  If we increase demand on the basin beyond what is sustainable, is this reflective of the past 13 years that have been dry or is it seeing changes to recharge based on climate change?  So what we’re doing is we’re updating the water budget inventory analysis by the end of this year, but these are the compelling questions that we have that are going to lead to internal discussions if we do see areas that are unsustainable by trying to take locally steps to try and head this off before we go over that tipping point.

It’s unfinished business and a lot of work that lies ahead but linking and coordinating water management on a sound data set and being able to manage from that is key,” concluded Mr. Gosselin.

Maurice Hall, Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization with more than 130,000 members and contributors in California as well as a very active program here, began Maurice Hall.  “Much of our work involves working on the ground, in particular places with other partners, and much of that work involves water,” he said.  “We’re most known for working in ways where we secure the needs of ecosystems and habitats and the fish and wildlife alongside the needs of the farms and cities that are around us.  In fact, we’re often working with those very farms and cities to try and make sure that the water supplies that we are trying to protect are secure.  We recognize that the allocations that we need for nature are going to be more secure if the water supplies for the farms and the cities are also secure.”

Hall_TNC_Groundwater Surface Water Connection_Page_02In practically every place that we’re working to protect things that are associated with water, groundwater is important,” he said.  “I want to highlight one aspect of groundwater management that is especially important and sometimes is under recognized in cases of severe overdraft and that is the effect of groundwater on streamflow.  Groundwater pumping affects streamflow.”

Hall_TNC_Groundwater Surface Water Connection_Page_03Every time you see a stream that is flowing across a valley floor over an aquifer, you need to keep in mind that underneath that stream, those sediments are full of water,” said Mr. Hall.  “If the water levels in those sediments under the stream and around the stream are high, then the water actually flows from the aquifer from the groundwater into the stream and contributes to the stream flow.  That steramflow is certainly important for the fish that depend on it but it’s also important as a water supply.  In fact, streamflows make up the other 60 to 70% of our water supply, and so the groundwater and conditions like this are contributing the remainder of our water supply, even beyond that 30 to 40% fraction that you’ve heard about.”

Hall_TNC_Groundwater Surface Water Connection_Page_04When we pump groundwater, we’re actually lowering the groundwater levels, and if those groundwater levels are lowered enough and they become lower than the stream, you can actually reverse the flow and the stream loses flow into the groundwater and contributes to the groundwater budget,” he said.  “We call this recharge and in fact it’s a very important source of recharge to our groundwater basins across the state and wherever you have these streams.”

Hall_TNC_Groundwater Surface Water Connection_Page_05If the groundwater levels are drawn down farther, you get to a point where the stream is still leaking but it’s what we call disconnected from the stream,” he said.  “In this case, the streamflow really leaks as fast as the sediments will allow it to leak and still contributes to the groundwater recharge.”

Hall_TNC_Groundwater Surface Water Connection_Page_06In cases where groundwater levels are drawn down even further and the leakage exceeds the flow of the stream, you can have streams that go completely dry,” he said.  “The example that I’ve shown has been the Cosumnes River … which is about 20 miles south of here in southern Sacramento County.  The Cosumnes River is what I think of as an indicator stream because the Cosumnes River flows year round out of the mountains, and for much of the year, in the wetter parts of the year, it flows all the way across the valley sediments where the aquifer exists and into Delta.”

Hall_TNC_Groundwater Surface Water Connection_Page_08But because of groundwater withdrawals and lowering groundwater levels around the stream, the stream now loses its flow for much of the year, beginning with usually about July and into October,” said Mr. Hall.  “It’s very evident in the Cosumnes because there’s not large storage upstream and the flows are very small in the summer so it completely disappears.”


Hall_TNC_Groundwater Surface Water Connection_Page_09But the processes that I showed you happens wherever you have streams flowing over our groundwater basins.  It just may be hidden, because there’s adequate flow in the streams because reservoir releases are supporting the streamflow but that leakage is still occurring.  … The surface flows which the fish depend on and which much of our state depends on for our water supplies, those surface flows are reduced by increased groundwater pumping.”

In some parts of the state, groundwater pumping has stabilized and isn’t increasing, but in other parts of the state, there is a significant increase in groundwater use that is compromising our surface water systems, he said.

“I want to emphasize the fact that there certainly are areas of the state where there is severe overdraft and water quality problems, and those places we very much need to address groundwater issues – it’s absolutely essential,” he said.  “It’s also essential that we pay attention as we move forward in implementing groundwater management to the places where the groundwater levels haven’t been severely impacted at this point and where our surface flows and our groundwater levels are relatively healthy.  If we pay attention to those places sooner rather than later, it’s easier to address the issues, and we protect the surface flows.  If we take action only in the most severely impacted areas and we ignore these other areas and let the conditions continue to degrade, it’s going to be more difficult to recover and the surface supplies the supply the remaining part of our state’s water needs are going to be further compromised.”

John Sweigard, General Manager at Merced Irrigation District

John Sweigard began by giving some basic information about the Merced Irrigation District.  “We’re a multi-purpose agency,” he said.  “We provide ag water, we do parks & recreation, we provide storm drainage, hydroelectric power, and we’re also a retail electric provider in eastern Merced County, and all those things provide driving economic activity.”

Part 3 SweigardThe District is about 130,000 acres in a 500,000 acre sub-basin; we call it the Merced sub-basin,” he said.  “Our watershed is Yosemite Valley.  The District has been very active in conjunctive groundwater management and reservoir reoperation, and we’ve been very active for over 20 years in the water transfer markets.  We provide water supply for others, both in basin and out of basin to refuges, for fisheries, and for flows and water quality in the Merced and San Joaquin River.”

He noted that they do both direct and indirect recharge as well as surface in-lieu of recharge where in wet years, we try to get as much water into the basin as we possibly can, and we hope to do more of that, he said.

Funding is an issue, he said.  “These things are expensive, but it’s the right thing to do and we have to figure out a way to get the funding from locals and from the state level to make those things happen.”

The District is hoping to expand their direct recharge basins, but for the time being, they are intentionally not lining a large portion of their delivery system in sandy areas, he said.  “We do recharge every single year, year in and year out,” he said.  “That practice may be in jeopardy in the future with another issue that this legislature will have activity in which is the basin planning amendment process in the Bay-Delta.  The surface water is very important to groundwater management issue.  As an example, if that process moves forward on its current footing, one of the things that our district will have to consider is lining all of those canals and getting rid of the recharge that occurs annually for the benefit of the entire basin.”

Mr. Sweigard said he’s been at the District for four years, and he’s tried to ramp up the AB 3030 process, but it’s taken awhile.  “Where we are now is that we’re right at the precipice of running a science based surface groundwater interaction model with buy-in from all the stakeholders with input from DWR, UC Merced and USGS, and along with that, we have received 75% funding under the IRWMP program for several projects in our community, including a storm project that can bring water in for recharge and one project that will help one of our disadvantaged communities with their water quality issue, so we believe we’re also having some success with IRWMP and AB 3030, the two mechanisms that are currently in place.”  He noted that they also are doing water resources planning at the district level, so hopefully all three processes will merge together at an end point 12 to 15 months from now.

Land use decisions occurring outside of district boundaries are having a big impact on groundwater, creating a lot of hardened demand, he said, admitting he doesn’t know what the answer is to that.

If this surface water-groundwater issue becomes a bigger issue in Merced County, it’s going to have some serious economic outfall,” he said.  “Without that surface water, there is really only one solution in our basin, and that is to reduce the amount of groundwater pumping that occurs, and there’s been a lot of investment – a lot of planning and homes, businesses, agriculture that will have to make some very tough decisions and that will have some real implications financially within our community.”

It’s important to be careful about how we proceed, he said.  “I agree with almost everything I’ve heard here today.   I just don’t want anything to occur that’s going to blow up any processes like ours that are on the edge of really getting some good results that we can come here in a couple of years and brag about.  That’s what our goal is.”

Whitnie Wiley, Senior Legislative Advocate for the Association of California Water Agencies

Whitnie Wiley, lead legislative advocate on groundwater issues for the Association of California Water Agencies, began by noting that ACWA is a statewide coalition of over 440 public water agencies, many of whom manage groundwater resources and are collectively responsible for delivering 90% of water to cities, farms, and businesses throughout California.

Part 3 Whitnie 2Recognizing the important role that groundwater plays in the state’s overall water supply portfolio, ACWA published its groundwater framework in 2011,” she said.  “The framework outlined a series of recommendations that local and state agencies can take to advance sustainable groundwater management.” She also noted that last year, a groundwater sustainability task force was created to recommend strategies to the Brown administration related to groundwater overdraft and other issues, and they will be submitting those recommendations to the Governor by mid-April.

As noted by the Brown administration in the California Water Action Plan, groundwater should be managed at the local level,” said Ms. Wiley.  “ACWA believes that existing mechanisms for managing groundwater basins are providing an excellent foundation for sustainable management now and in the future.  Locally controlled groundwater management is effective because local and regional entities are the most knowledgeable about their local basins and are available to be first responders to any changes or problems that they encounter.”

The state should support and incentivize effective local and regional groundwater management,” she said.  “We do recognize however that the state may need to serve as a backstop for situations where locals are not stepping up to manage groundwater and their overdraft conditions.” She noted that the task force is looking at how to do that in a limited but effective way.

ACWA and its members stand ready to collaborate in development of appropriate regulatory and policy related actions and initiatives that will further promote more effective and comprehensive groundwater management,” concluded Ms. Wiley.

Discussion highlights

Assemblyman Dahle asks about watershed health, specifically upper watershed – the forests where there is more fuel loading because of lack of natural wildfire and asks if any would like to comment on that.

Part 3 Hall 1The Nature Conservancy is very interested and active in the Sierra watersheds,” said Mr. Hall.  “In fact in the state dialog, we do see that the emphasis tends to be on infrastructure on the downstream end of the system, but in fact those watersheds contribute a huge fraction of our state water supply.  Management of the watersheds, both by managed thinning of the forests and controlled burning when its appropriate, is really important in maintaining not just the water yield of those watersheds but also minimizing sediment yields which affects storage in our reservoirs and the infrastructure that is already in place, so it’s a really important issue for the long term sustainability of our water supplies and its going to become even more important if all of the warnings about loss of snowmelt occur.”

Assemblymember Bigelow asks the panelists what are the tools they feel are necessary that are missing in the tool box today.

“I think there’s broad agreement that you need to manage on at least a sub-basin level so that you are dealing with some unit of water,” said Lester Snow.  “In general, the management of that basin is fragmented. You might have two irrigation districts, a city, a county, or whatever, so first and foremost for local control, I think it means having some mechanism for cooperation among those different entities that have different jurisdictions and different authorities,” noting that could be a JPA or MOUs.  “Make sure they have the clear authority to allocate the groundwater – to allocate the sustainable yield in the basin.  If they are going to go to the expense of having replenishment, they need to clearly have the fees to offset the costs of replenishment, so they need to be able to levy fees, and they need to be able to require reporting coming in from people who are pumping water out of the basin.  There are some special act districts that have that now, a handful, but for the most part, most local entities that are engaged in groundwater management don’t have the authority to do those things.”

Areas outside of districts where there are independent pumpers and how that affects the basin is an issue for Butte County, so land use is sort of key, said Paul Gosselin.  “We’ve been working with our county land use agency through the development plan process, the general plan process.  One missing piece or tool is a water manager who is able to communicate water budgets and impacts on basin to the land use managers which is a different language and communication and structure.  There needs to be a bridging between the two, so if in time, that tool is brought into the tool box, there’s an understanding on both sides on what technical issues we’re dealing with and they can address it in a reasonable way.”

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