Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Water oversight hearing on groundwater, part 2: Approaches to groundwater management

On March 18, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water held an informational oversight hearing on groundwater. In this portion of the hearing, Andrew Fahlund with the California Water Foundation discussed the issues that need to be considered as the legislature contemplates groundwater management on a statewide basis.

This is the second of four-part coverage of the hearing.

Andrew Fahlund, Deputy Director of the California Water Foundation

The Water Foundation invests in actions and promotes innovative policies and practices that balance the water needs for California’s farms, cities, and environment, now and in the future,” began Andrew Fahlund.

The conversation around groundwater this year is far different than what anyone has been talking about in decades,” he said.  “No one is arguing that there isn’t a problem and no one claims that the current system is really sufficient to do the job. If we’re talking about stages of recovery, I think we would have at least reached the point of acceptance.”

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It’s easiest to think about this issue as a simple equation of supply and demand, and that equation really needs to be balanced if we’re going to avoid robbing our children of this increasingly valuable resource,” he said.

Prehistoric records and the recent Australian drought suggests that there’s no reason to assume it will be over anytime soon, he said.  “The value and importance of groundwater is that it’s our greatest buffer against drought, and if precipitation is our income and surface reservoirs are our checking account, then groundwater might be best viewed as a savings account or perhaps in some cases, an inheritance.”

I’ve heard over and over from numerous stakeholders that it’s hard to have a conversation about groundwater without talking about the other parts of the water system,” Mr. Fahlund said.  “Environmentalists often want to talk about amending the artificial legal distinctions between groundwater and surface water, agricultural producers often want to talk about the loss of surface water through amendments to contracts or curtailments that has forced them to pump more groundwater, and while all of those issues are valid and important to have in terms of a discussion and to explore, I think it would be a mistake for us to delay taking action on fixing something we know needs attention today and when there’s energy to do so.”

There are more than 500 individual groundwater basins throughout the state of California, each one different and distinct from the others,” said Mr. Fahlund.  “The physical characteristics of groundwater basins are remarkably diverse with some small and shallow while others like the San Joaquin Valley are deep and vast.  We have some groundwater that needs little treatment to drink while others are saline or contaminated with natural or manmade substances.  Some aquifers in the Sierra are found in fractured granite while those on the coast are actually abut the ocean.”

In some parts of the state, aquifers are replenished or recharged by rain or snowfall quite rapidly; while others, other aquifers such as the deep confined aquifers in the Central Valley, they may be recharged in places that are dozens of miles from the place where the groundwater is withdrawn,” he continued.  “And yet in other places still, aquifers were deposited thousands of years ago, effectively making them akin to something like a fossil fuel.”

Not only are the physical characteristics of groundwater highly variable but so are its uses, and as with all water in California, the largest user of groundwater in the state is agriculture,” he said.  “Agriculture’s use of groundwater varies according to crop type, availability of surface water, and all of the other variables that affect agricultural commodities.  Many cities depend on groundwater for some or all of their populations with places like Fresno depending heavily on groundwater, as well as many coastal communities.  And numerous industrial users depend on groundwater including the energy industry.”

Fahlund 1Groundwater is also important to environmental uses,” he said. “Many streams and the species they house depend on cool groundwater flows during hot summer months, and some wetlands and waterfowl as well as forests depend on high groundwater tables for their survival.”

The takeaway here is that the physical, economic, and social dimensions of groundwater in California are remarkably diverse, and consequently, management and regulation tend to be pushed down to a local level, and I think that’s not only by design, but in some respects by necessity,” he said.

The challenges of overuse of groundwater affect all the residents statewide, he said.  “Certainly the most dramatic consequence of overuse is subsidence or the depression of land as water is removed from beneath it, and during the 60s and 70s, parts of the Central Valley experienced drops of more than 20 feet due to pumping,” said Mr. Fahlund.  “This prompted part of the construction of the State Water Project to provide those areas with an alternative source of water, and that resolved the problem for some time, but just late last year, the USGS issued some reports that uncovered evidence that there is new subsidence in the Central Valley at rates akin to what we were seeing in the 60s and 70s at about a foot per year.”

Not every part of the state is vulnerable to subsidence but those that are, run the risk of damage to roads, bridges, canals, pipelines, dams, and buildings, costing millions of dollars and leading to significant disruption of economic activity,” he said.

Another impact of overdraft is energy use,” he said.  “At 8 pounds per gallon, water is heavy.  It takes a lot of energy to lift it.  And so the more we pump and from deeper depths, the more energy and cost it requires and the more greenhouse gases we emit.  So during the height of the summer, it’s important to note that groundwater pumping is only second to air conditioning in terms of its draw on the electrical system.  And groundwater pumping can also have impacts on surface flows, whether they be for consumptive use or flows for ecosystems.”

One of the most urgent impacts of groundwater overdraft occurs along the coast where we have salt water intrusion threats, and remedies for that can be drastic and expensive,” he said.  “We can’t actually be late to the game in addressing those.”

Finally, the obvious consequence of groundwater overdraft is simply depletion of aquifers, and sometimes this is just simply a matter of drawing down the levels of the aquifers to levels that are so low that it’s not cost effective to drill for some users,” he said.  “While I don’t see an immediate risk of aquifers going completely dry in very many places, there are enough troubling signs of wells drying up that we have to start to look at that.  With the volatility and extremes of a changing climate, future generations are going to need these resources.”

Click here for the California Water Foundation’s Information Bank on groundwater management.

California’s current system of groundwater management is fairly limited and the rules that govern that system relatively new, he said.  AB3030 and SB 1938 established incentives for developing groundwater management plans and granted limited authorities to water agencies to develop plans, establish goals, and implement programs to manage groundwater, he said.  “While many of these plans resulted in improvements to local groundwater management, the laws did little to develop measurable and enforceable standards and provided few tools that locals could use to really address issues such as pumping or monitoring and measurement,” he said.

Local jurisdiction over groundwater is in fact a patchwork that doesn’t particularly correspond well to the groundwater basins themselves leading to overlaps and a lot of gaps in jurisdiction, he said.  “We have a lot of places there are people just outside of the boundary of a groundwater management plan pumping aggressively and the best intentions of the folks inside that boundary are really corrupted as a result of that, so I think that mosaic or that patchwork of gaps really is something that truly needs to be addressed.”

I would caution against, however, imposing a whole new system on top of the existing network of jurisdictions that already exist,” he said.  “For instance, in the case of Paso Robles, they are actually going out and seeking a new body, a new structure, a new entity to address their needs, but that’s quite variable depending on the local circumstances, and I think that it’s important that we empower locals to gather together and figure out what works best for them and then establish a system around that.”

In talking about jurisdictions, it’s important to mention counties,” he said.  “Counties are an important and unique player in the management of groundwater, and there are significant variation among them in terms of expertise and resources to assume the responsibility of managing groundwater.  Counties typically issue drilling permits for new wells and for many, that’s the extent of their involvement in groundwater management.  Others are much more involved and have expert staff and so forth.  At least in theory, counties could exercise their police powers to control pumping, but none really do.”

Of course, counties also have significant authority to regulate land use, and land use decisions have profound impacts in water demand,” he said.  “One question that’s been raised by some is whether there should be a requirement to include a water element in each county’s general plan.”

Our legal system leaves disputing parties little choice but to file a lawsuit if they seek resolution over a groundwater dispute,” he said.  “In 23 basins, we have adjudications that govern the management of groundwater.  There are some advantages to these adjudications in that overlying landowners and others have understanding and certainty around their groundwater rights.  Of course, the price for adjudication is quite high, and these things can take a long time and cost millions in attorney’s fees.”  Finding and easier way to resolve disputes, perhaps by an administrative process to clarify rights, is certainly worthy of consideration in any legislative effort, he said.

One area where groundwater plans and state law have provided mixed results is in data collection, transparency, and dissemination,” he said.  “As the saying goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.  I think the legislature should be applauded for its passage of the package in 2009 that at least moved in the direction of collecting additional information about groundwater levels, but clearly we need more in terms of investment and in terms of consistency.  Again I would stress that one size does not fit all when it comes to collection of groundwater data.  There does need to be consistency in what we collect, how we collect it, what sort of methods and models are used, but on the other hand, the needs of each individual basin are going to be unique and fairly specific, and so we have to have some standards, but some level of flexibility exercised here.”

groundwater_pumpSo how can we have a statewide system for regulation of groundwater in a state as vast and diverse as California, he said.  “The California Water Foundation has been asking this question of a variety of stakeholders from around the state, and we’ve been sponsoring a dialog and holding a series of meetings involving local governments, agricultural growers, environmental and environmental justice groups, and numerous others to gather ideas to inform a solution.  And our plan is to deliver a report to your Committee as well as your colleagues in the Assembly as well as the Governor’s office by mid-April that provides some specific recommendations on what we’re hearing and what we believe to be the best path forward.”

He then gave some of his observations of what they had been learning from the dialogs with stakeholders.  “All of this begs the question what’s our goal, and I think the answer that we have arrived at is sustainable groundwater management,” said Mr. Fahlund.  “Now sustainability is an overused term and we all like to define it ourselves for our own purposes, but at the end of the day, I think we’re talking about not unduly harming future generations while still maintaining a viable agricultural economy, water for our communities, and protection of the unique and natural wonders of California.”

While sustainability may differ from one aquifer to another, the state can and should establish a clear definition that gives local agencies some understanding of minimum expectations and a clear set of goals,” he said.  “We’re also hearing from stakeholders that any new legislation really needs to facilitate cooperation and organization among existing agencies, particularly to cover unmanaged portions of each aquifer and to coordinate the adjoining and overlapping jurisdictions.  We’re hearing that folks need a new suite of tools that empower them to manage both supply and demand; but that flexibility as to the use of those tools, when and where to use them, is really important.  With these new tools and news institutional arrangements, we need to establish explicit goals and objectives for sustainability, and there need to be plans for local enforcement of those, and with time frames that are ambitious but realistic.  In many cases, arresting this problem is going to take years.”

Finally, I think nearly everyone we’ve heard from envisions an important role for the state that supports local agencies with technical and financial assistance, and in those rare instances where local organization and enforcement aren’t possible or prove obtainable, there needs to be a mechanism with clear criteria for the state to step in and prevent ongoing harm until local agencies are able to reestablish their role as managers,” he said.  “The process is no doubt controversial; but if done well, it would be far preferable to being tied up in a court in an adjudication process.”

There are some who argue that any attempt to control groundwater extractions is an infringement on private property rights,” he said.  “I’d like to point out that most of the ongoing disputes over groundwater in California involve competition between property rights holders, and so we can’t simply say that we’ve got to come up with a better system of dealing with those conflicts between legitimate property rights holders.  This is not a matter of taking people’s private property; this is a matter of actually protecting it.”

So as I said at the start of my testimony, this is all about a buffer against drought,” he said.  “We need to invest, promote and encourage the storage of water in our aquifers during wet years for use during dry years, and I think a system that’s built on transparency and protects people’s rights and bring the system into balance is what we’re ultimately all trying to achieve.”

Coming tomorrow …

Jay Jasperse from the Sonoma County Water Agency, Lynn Maulhardt from Ventura County’s United Water Conservation District & Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, and Sarge Green from Fresno’s California Water Institute will discuss the successes and challenges of managing groundwater in their respective regions.

For more information …

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