Water in the West report: Stanford report proposes measures to head off looming groundwater crisis

From Stanford University’s Water in the West:

lettuce“A new report by Water in the West at Stanford University calls attention to the diminishing supply of groundwater in many basins in California, a problem heightened by the persistent drought that is affecting the state, and offers suggestions for improving the linkage between groundwater and land use.

Groundwater provides about 30 percent of California’s water supply during normal years and 40 percent or more in dry years. In many parts of the state, water users are withdrawing groundwater at unsustainable rates, in part due to land use changes.

Before the Wells Runs Dry: Improving the Linkage Between Groundwater and Land Use Planning” recommends making new tools available to California communities to allow them flexibility to regulate groundwater demand as land use changes.

Published April 10, the 34-page report summarizes findings at a conference hosted by Water in the West in the fall of 2013. This “Uncommon Dialogue” brought together 30 groundwater managers, land use managers, water lawyers, consultants and academics to develop practical solutions to the problem of groundwater management and land use in response to the urgency faced by many communities today as wells start to dry up due to declining groundwater levels, such as in the Paso Robles Basin.

Groundwater pumping is largely unregulated in California. In general, if you own land, you can install a well and start pumping. As a result, changes in land use that drive up water demand can increase groundwater demand to the point that it outstrips supply. While local officials have the ability to regulate groundwater, some don’t realize how much stress land use decisions place on their aquifers.

Tim Parker, president of Parker Groundwater, who has worked with local jurisdictions and water districts for more than 25 years, said, “Every land use decision affects groundwater resources.”

The report provides background and regulatory context for land use planning and groundwater management in California, shares case studies that highlight the intersection of groundwater and land use, and makes specific recommendations to improve the linkage between land use decisions and groundwater management in the state.

Some key recommendations are:

  • Tailor development to water availability. Communities in California need tools to ensure that new development and agriculture don’t place additional strain on aquifers that are in chronic overdraft. These communities need locally tailored and flexible regulations, supported by state law, that give them the ability to limit the overall demand on these aquifers as land use changes. For example, these new laws might require that new water use be offset by reduced demand or that new demands seek alternative supplies of water.
  • Require general plans to focus on water. All new general plans in California should include a “water element” that would strengthen the connection between land use and water. This section would incorporate water goals into the public planning process and ensure that plans for growth take available water supply into account.
  • Collect more data on groundwater usage and make it widely available. The lack of data is a major contributor to groundwater overdraft. Many communities find out their aquifer is in overdraft when it is too late. State law needs to set standards for collecting and sharing groundwater data, including individual well data.

The report focuses on several local case studies – Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, Orcutt (Santa Maria Groundwater Basin), Butte County and Kings Basin Integrated Regional Water Management – to show how different communities in California are responding to their groundwater and land use challenges.

Read the full report here.

About Water in the West
Water in the West is a partnership of the faculty, staff and students of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and The Bill Lane Center for the American West. The mission of Water in the West is to design, articulate and advance sustainable water management for the people and environment of the American West. Linking ideas to action, it accomplishes this mission by engaging in cutting-edge research, creative problem solving, active collaboration with decision-makers and opinion leaders, effective public communication and hands-on education of students. To learn more visit: waterinthewest.stanford.edu.

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