Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Water oversight hearing on groundwater, part 4: Gary Bardini and Felicia Marcus discuss the path forward

Committee 1On March 18, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water held an informational oversight hearing on groundwater. In this final installment of coverage, Gary Bardini from the Department of Water Resources and Felicia Marcus from the State Water Resources Control Board discuss what actions the administration is taking to address the state’s groundwater management issues.

Gary Bardini began by reading a quote that Director Mark Cowin read during a recent speech on groundwater:  “‘Groundwater looms very large in the total water picture in California, and the formation and implementation of plans to meet our needs for water in the future.  We are seriously lacking the data and information necessary for planned utilization of groundwater and in planned utilization of groundwater basins, remember that we are dealing not only with the engineering and hydraulic problems; we’re also dealing with legal and financial problems,’” read Mr Bardini.  “This is a quote that Mark gave, and this was a quote from Harvey O. Banks in 1957 and it stresses really the importance of groundwater and the challenges we have.”

We need to act; I think our speakers before expressed the need and importance of how they’ve acted in where we’re going,” he said.  “But if you look at it, we have acted and the need to act is even more so now, and of course how we act in the future is extremely important.”

Groundwater use is about 40% of our water use statewide,” he said.  “Obviously it’s use is greater as you move south, but nevertheless, it’s very important in all parts of the state.”

We haven’t been idle over these years,” said Mr. Bardini.  “While Harvey Banks did stress the importance of groundwater management back in 1957, back in 1980, the Department did produce Bulletin 118.  It really did reflect already the same kind of things that were reflected by Harvey Banks and some of the pressing issues.  Of course groundwater overdraft and critical overdraft conditions were highlighted in that report, and a lot of those things still exist.

The California Water Plan, currently being updated, includes groundwater information, said Mr. Bardini.  “If you look at what was done in 2005 – 2010, you can see that groundwater use can vary from 5 to 13 MAF statewide, so its use is varied based on weather and dry conditions,” he said.  “We happen to be in a dry condition today and its use is much greater, and we’re seeing those effects on our aquifers and groundwater levels.”

Bardini 1Overuse of groundwater has significant impacts, such as increased energy use as the wells are deepened, water quality concerns, and subsidence, he pointed out.  “The legislature hasn’t been quiet on this,” he said.  “Back in 1992, we did AB 3030 and started the process of groundwater management plans.  In 2000, we did local assistance grants where we had AB 303; we went further on the groundwater management plans back in 2002 with SB 1938, and we talk a lot about the 2009 legislation, the SBx7-6 where we went further with groundwater monitoring efforts under CASGEM, so we have been working and progressing with those.  We have had results positive, and of course we’ve had some probably where we would not have, and the question is where we want to go beyond that.”

We’ve had mixed results on the groundwater management plans, he said.  “We have about 119 as a whole; I would say that about 42% of the areas have adequate groundwater management plans in some fashion.  … Nevertheless, we’ve had progresses and successes.  The good news though is that those basins with groundwater management plans are in areas of critical groundwater use, so while the percentage as a whole doesn’t look as great, when we look at our high use areas, or our critical and medium use, we have a much higher participation in the groundwater management plans.”

We’ve had a number of successes with the CASGEM program, Mr. Bardini said.  “We have about 72 designated monitoring entities now involved; we’ve probably got about half the basins in some representation, so there’s progress,” he said.  “The good news is that we have a lot more information than we’ve had historically, and the aspects of doing groundwater level measures is greatly improved, so we continue to work with local agencies and stress that.  We have incentive programs to continue with the state’s incentive to have bigger and broader participation and we’re looking to leverage that into the future.”  He noted that although there’s been progress in key areas, there is more to be done.

The California Water Action Plan addresses groundwater management and empowering local agencies, he said.  “That’s been essentially the model we’ve been using in state, and I would certainly concur that the local agencies are on the ground on their issues and certainly more ownership to the management is critical to the success,” he said.  “The Integrated Regional Water Management Program has been a hallmark of the state’s effort to improve regional management in water, beyond just groundwater but to essentially what we call more sustainable resource management.  Sustainable has different measures by region but nevertheless what we’re looking for is strengthening up the ability to manage our water resources at a regional level in a responsible way.”

Awareness of groundwater use and how it is managed is managed is critical, as well as improving collaboration and coordination at the government level.  “We’ve been doing that with IRWM and we need to progress and continue that,” he said.

DWR has been collaborating with the State Water Board and local agencies to increase the availability and sharing of groundwater information; however, further strengthening groundwater levels and the CASGEM program is something they propose, he said.

Mr. Bardini then recapped some of the points made by Director Mark Cowin in his last speech he gave on groundwater.  “One of the things he talked about is advancing IRWM as a whole.  He thinks that essentially better integrated water management and moving folks out of silos and continuing to progress is critical,” he said.  “Mark did have a few principles that are important to note.  He feels there should be no transfer of impacts from one region to the other as a principle, and that the regions accept responsibility for doing their own risk assessments and we need to help promote that.  In our IRWM plans, we need to manage the risk appropriately and come together on how we do that, and last, we want to continue to improve the alignment between federal, state, and local agencies.”

We need to continue to improve our groundwater management tools,” said Mr. Bardini.  “It is a bit of expertise – it is very detailed and very complicated to do this work.”  He noted that they would also like to see groundwater management plans integrated into and bridged into the regional management plans.

Felicia 2Felicia Marcus said that the Mark Twain quote is used a lot in the surface water world, but the quote she likes is Ben Franklin’s.  “I’m going to paraphrase it: we only know the worth of water when the wells run dry,” she said.  “Wells are running dry, and neighbors are punching deeper holes and leaving some of their neighbors stranded, so this worth of water issue when it comes to groundwater is something that is top of mind in a way that it really has not been.”

The conversation has completely changed, she said.  “When I first got here, people at the local level were talking about it everywhere I went – they were talking about it in coffee shops and bars but not in front microphones.   Now I find that people are not just talking about it in coffee shops and bars and not but now people are speaking at microphones about it, and that change has been in the last year.”

In the face of climate change, we’re going to need every inch of storage we can find above ground, below ground, big and small,” she said.  “Our groundwater basins are our most precious resource.  Some places have managed them beautifully and very intensively.  Some have gone all the way to court-adjudication, some have legislative, some have done things at the local level.  Some areas in the San Gabriel Valley and Santa Ana, it’s just astounding what they have and how closely they manage it, and they’ve had the ability to do that because of the densification and the amount of money they had to be able to go with complex processes.  In other areas, people have done a good job at the County level.”

Every basin is different, and there’s every size and flavor of trying to deal with this, she said.  In the face of climate change, it’s a piggy bank for surface water, and also a place to put recycled water and stormwater, she said.   “Some places are doing all of those at the same time and more places are going to have to do that all at the same time,” she said.  “Treading here is not for the faint of heart.”

With the California Water Action Plan, it’s the first time in decades, if ever, that I’ve seen an administration take an all of the above strategy versus picking winners and losers,” Ms. Marcus said.  “It’s an all-of-the-above strategy rather than an either-or strategy to deal with the onslaught of climate change with the loss of snowpack, population growth, and other things.  We’re going to need everything.  We’re going to need new conveyance, we’re going to need storage, we’re going to need recycling, we’re going to need conservation, we’re going to need stormwater, we’re going to need to do it all in an integrated way and we’re going to have to figure out how to make our institutions which are incredibly fractured work together better, and that’s all in there.”

Continuing to strengthen CASGEM and increase participation is important, said Mr. Bardini.  “In April, we’ll have out in April is an assessment of prioritization of basins, so we’ll start focusing in on the higher priority basins and improving participation.”

We’ve talked about increasing the assessment of groundwater management plans, he said.  “Bulletin 118 has been the historical one that the Department has used to get an overall state assessment of where we’re at and that would further go to help prioritization of the state’s efforts working with locals.”

From a Department and state perspective, the fact is we have to progress the local participation in all of this and more importantly, I’d like to see the local agencies do their own evaluations and assessments,” he said.  “We need their ownership in that assessment work, rather than the state doing the work.”

It’s a theme you’ll hear over and over again, and certainly in every piece of the administration’s work, Ms. Marcus added.  “There’s a directive that we should really focus attention on figuring out how to promote groundwater recharge and storage and to remove barriers, fill data gaps, and do different types of things.”

The State Water Board has been trying to provide incentives for watershed management in stormwater plans  to encourage projects with multiple benefits such as flood control, water supply, water quality, and maybe even greening the city projects, she said.

Felicia 1Accelerating groundwater clean-up is important, because groundwater contamination issues are huge.  “It has been the subject of a lot of hearings, whether in agricultural or urban arena, and one of the things we’ve committed to there is to figure out how to work across traditional divides to use our best tools most efficiently, economically, and effectively to deal with groundwater cleanup so we can use those basins that have water in them,” she said, noting that the water board has an ongoing effort with DTSC, US EPA and the regional water board in LA to see how they can get something done more quickly.

It is not just figuring out how to clean up a site from the source of contamination but how to prevent the spread of contamination into previously uncontaminated water,” she said.  “It’s a much bigger issue and we should probably spend time on another day, but that’s in there, too.”

It’s a two part strategy of figuring out how to support and help local agencies financially, removing institutional barriers and creating institutional opportunities, just helping them sustainably manage their groundwater in whatever way is going to be appropriate in their community, but having an important backstop with the state, and there is a robust conversation about what that might mean,” she said.  She noted that the State Board has some authorities to do this, but they are unwieldy.

It’s a broader conversation about how do we do it in a more streamlined way that has more meaning but also a robust discussion about what does that mean,” said Ms. Marcus.  “Does that mean that we should be blunt and use brute force or is it a more tiered approach with multiple carrots and sticks?

The State Water Board recently circulated a groundwater concept paper which discussed the tools that the board has, suggested steps the water board might take, and invited public comment, she said.  “The paper focused on the five things we thought a good groundwater management plan should have. … One was thresholds – knowing what you have, second is monitoring and assessment, third is some kind of governance and management that might actually work, funding is the fourth which is something that the state can always help with and sometimes that’s removing barriers like the 218 conversation, and then fifth, some sort of oversight and actual enforcement. … You need something that’s actually going to be implemented.”

The drought legislation advances positions from the Governor’s budget to start implementing portions of the water action plan, including $1.8 million in funding for 10 positions to help the board implement the authorities they currently have, she said.

There is a more robust conversation where the Governor’s office has convened a bunch of stakeholders to talk about the possibility of legislation under the framework of actually getting to removing barriers, giving support to local agencies and defining our backstop and giving us some tools, so there is a lot going on right now and it couldn’t happen fast enough,” Ms. Marcus said.

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One comment

  • David McCabe

    As has already been proven throughout the West, local management plans, while comfortable in concept, do not work because of inevitable local power struggles. California must take over and preserve groundwater rights statewide. I know of no more serious issue to be included under the “Public rights doctrine” let alone the Porter-Cologne Act !

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