Groundwater Management Workshop, Part 1: Sustainable Groundwater Management Panel

On March 24, the California Natural Resources Agency, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the California Environmental GuzmanProtection Agency held a workshop to gather ideas, proposals and feedback on sustainable groundwater management actions.

Groundwater is of critical important to the state, began Martha Guzman, Deputy Legislative Secretary for Governor Brown. “Unfortunately, there are many areas that have a situation where the groundwater is overtaxed and current practices are not sustainable,” she said. “We recognize both in the Governor’s Water Action Plan and particularly in the governor’s budget is that one size does not fit all – an approach in that manner will not work for the entire state. We obviously have a state with many geographical differences and many cultural differences that we want to account for in a regional approach.”

Even though the drought has raised a broader awareness of the importance of groundwater, the issue was put forward by the Governor even prior to the drought, given its great potential to make the state more drought and climate resistant, she added.

CWAP Cover
Click here for the California Water Action Plan.

Some of the main objectives for groundwater detailed in the California Water Action Plan include collecting and sharing additional groundwater data, updating California’s groundwater plan Bulletin 118, increasing groundwater recharge and storage, accelerating groundwater cleanup, and empowering local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably, she said. “Some areas do a fabulous job using a range of tools from full on court adjudication to strong county, water district, or other local agency management; Others have had a harder time for a range of institutional, financial and political reasons,” she said. “The difficulty in that is very complex and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.”

The plan is two part, she said. “The focus for the first part of this plan is to provide local and regional agencies with information, tools, access to funding, and authorities to sustainably manage groundwater. And secondly, when local agencies do not, the state should protect the most challenged basins until an effective local program can be established, commonly described as the state backstop,” she said. “While these are important actions, they are by no means THE solution; rather these are near term actions that can begin to alleviate some of the current problems and to put us on a path of more sustainable future.   More importantly, they have opened a multi-stakeholder conversation whose time has come.”

On the first panel, Tom Gohring, Executive Director of the Sacramento Water Forum; Grant Davis, General Manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency; John Rossi, General Manager of Western Municipal Water District; and Dan Wendell, Associate Director of Groundwater for the Nature Conservancy discuss what is sustainable groundwater management and how it is measured.

Tom Gohring, Sacramento Water Forum

Gohring 1Tom Gohring began by saying he would be talking about groundwater management in the Sacramento area, but while the Sacramento Water Forum had some involvement with the development of groundwater plans and governance, the organization’s role is now stepped back. “We are coordinating among basins but not managing within basins,” he said.

Tom_Gohring_Page_03He then presented a slide of a water schematic of the Sacramento area. “Each of the approximately 20 different water providers in the region uses either groundwater, surface water, or both,” he said. He noted that each box or oval represents one or more water purveyors; a blue bar indicates their surface water supply; the green bar, their groundwater.  “What may not be evident is that for most of the purveyors in our area, with the exception of Sac Suburban Water District, most of our districts either use surface water, groundwater, or both, but not in a redundant way,” he said. Using the City of Sacramento as an example, he explained that the 80% of the city’s supply comes from surface water and the remaining 20% from groundwater, but those waters are served to distinct different zones, as opposed to Sac Suburban Water District, which has both groundwater and surface water supplies, and a true conjunctive use method. “In drier years, they have the ability to switch to 100% groundwater, that’s what they did this year and last year, and in wet years, they can use in-lieu recharge, and that approach has been very successful in rebounding a pretty serious cone of depression in the area.”

The Sacramento Water Forum is a group of business interests, environmental groups, water purveyors and public agencies, who, in essence, signed a truce in 2000 to end the local Sacramento water wars, he said. “The Water Forum Agreement is basically a series of gives and gets,” he said. “Water purveyors got a commitment from the environmental community to support their continued use of surface and groundwater in the region and to support approximately doubling their use of surface water from the American River system over a 30 year period. In return, the environmental community got a commitment to aggressive water conservation, an improved flow standard, cutbacks in surface water use in the driest of years, and to groundwater management.”

Tom_Gohring_Page_06The Water Forum Agreement set goals for sustainability, as well as pushed for local governance, he said. “The first notable thing about the Water Forum Agreement from a groundwater management standpoint is that it did establish a set of volumetric sustainability targets and metrics,” he said. “These are the metrics we’ve chosen for this region. … They may not be the best metrics for here, but they are the ones that we chose.” He noted that they are a mixture of science, and policy. “They are for the most part informed by technical work but ultimately negotiated.”

The Water Forum divided Sacramento County into three zones that they call groundwater basins, he said. “Groundwater hydrologists might quibble with whether or not they are groundwater basins, but they are definitely geopolitical basins.”

Tom_Gohring_Page_07The North Basin has been very active, developing and adopting a groundwater management plan as well as establishing a JPA to actively manage their groundwater basin. “In essence they have rebounded from a 30 year downward trend in groundwater elevation,” he said. “They had a deep cone of depression, and largely through in-lieu recharge in Sac Suburban Water District, they’ve been able to rebound that and halt the downward slide.”  The Central Basin has also established a groundwater management plan and formed a JPA, but they are less active than the north basin, he said. The South Basin has developed a groundwater management plan, but have not seen it in their best interests to develop local governance structure, JPA or otherwise, he said, noting that they do have a loose confederation of organizations who’ve worked on developing the plan and are doing ongoing monitoring.

Within each of those zones, the most recent surveys that have been done indicate that the average annual groundwater extraction is less than the sustainable yield values,” said Mr. Gohring. “Does that mean that we’re sustainable? Not necessarily. It means we’ve met our sustainable yield targets.”

Tom_Gohring_Page_08The North Basin has also developed a groundwater accounting framework where they have allocated their own estimate of sustainable yield among their members, discussed a fee structure and tighter controls, he said. “Right now, as a whole, they are within their target extraction amount,” he said. “Whether they go further, it’s up to them because it’s local governance.” He noted that the Central Basin is developing a groundwater accounting framework, and are currently doing technical studies.

Tom_Gohring_Page_10In the region, groundwater sustainability is also linked to groundwater quality,” he said. “We do have a handful of fairly serious contamination plumes in the region, the biggest of which is the Aerojet plume, a vestige of the cold war. They made rocket engines and processed rocket fuel there and they left us a gift called perchlorate in our groundwater.  All of these groundwater contamination plumes are being remediated as we speak, but some of them, like the Aerojet plume, have a remediation target measured in centuries, so it’s definitely a concern, not just from a health standpoint, but from a water supply quantity standpoint as the cost of treatment of these contaminants at the wellhead is so high that when we reach the minimum contaminant level in the wells, if the plume moves further, in essence those wells become unusable.”

We’ve taken a local approach; we have established some volumetric sustainability targets, and the extraction by most recent measurements is less than those targets,” he said. “We have local governance in two out of three zones. Contamination appears to be contained but it’s elusive. Going back about six years ago, there were surprise measurements of perchlorate in wells where they never thought they’d see it before, so our best efforts tell us the plumes are contained but we literally stay up late at night worrying about it.

Sustainability in the county will depend on the pattern of development, and how much additional groundwater extraction occurs, as well as additional groundwater banking, in-lieu recharge, and active recharge.

Grant Davis, General Manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency

Sonoma County Water Agency is a special district created by the legislature in 1949 with operations span three different counties – Marin, Mendocino and Sonoma County, and increasingly into Napa with recycled water, said Grand Davis. “In addition to our core responsibility of supplying wholesale water to 600,000 customers, we also provide flood control and wastewater services, and we’re the lead agency in two groundwater management programs in Sonoma County. We’re also participating in the California Water Foundation’s groundwater steering committee.”

Davis 1In Sonoma County, both groundwater and surface water from the Russian River supply urban, rural residential, and agricultural water uses, he said, noting that groundwater also plays an important role in supporting habitat for sensitive ecosystems.

Sonoma County is a large county with 14 different distinct groundwater basins, he said. “In general, our region has experienced impacts such as declining water levels and water quality impairment, and these have led in some years to conflict and sometimes litigation between urban, rural, agricultural and environmental groups,” he said. “However, since 2000 Sonoma County Water Agency and the USGS have collaborated in partnership to conduct a series of technical and scientific studies in four of the largest and most heavily populated groundwater basins and to date, we have competed three of these studies and are expecting to begin the final study later this year.”

In two of the basins, the water agencies engaged the Center for Collaborative Policy to conduct state water assessments of residents and interest groups within these basins to gauge the level of understanding, and to assess whether there is community support for some form of management, he said. “In both cases, we heard loud and clearly from the stakeholders that there is a significant interest and concern about groundwater and that the groundwater should be locally managed in a voluntary and collaborative manner and not driven by a regulatory process,” he said. “Based on the stakeholder assessments, the water agency moved forward with groundwater management planning in Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain.” The Sonoma Valley established an AB 3030/SB 1938 plan in 2007 which they have been implementing ever since, and the Santa Rosa Plain is currently developing a groundwater plan which is anticipated to be complete this summer, he said.

Mr. Davis said that through these processes, they have identified seven key components for sustainable locally controlled groundwater resources:

  1. A vibrant stakeholder participation process: “A wide range of constituencies needs to become educated, not only on groundwater, but on water issues in general. The stakeholders include urban, rural residential businesses, municipal, environmental, tribal, and agricultural interests. This has resulted in the groundwater management programs being community based, planning forums for actual integrated water resource management, not just groundwater management.”
  2. Monitoring and modeling: “In Sonoma Valley where we once had 50 wells that were monitored, we now have 150 through voluntary programs that provide data and important trend lines for us to manage.”
  3. A commitment to groundwater protection: “Developing programs and educating people about the need to protect recharge areas and improve well management to assure both quality and quantity.”
  4. Increased conservation: “Educating people about the need to conserve water in order to protect groundwater resources.”
  5. Increased groundwater recharge: “With the support of stakeholders, we are exploring opportunities to increase recharge, including aquifer recharge by temporarily allowing captured stormwater to percolate into the ground. Another option is groundwater banking during the winter.”
  6. Increased water reuse: “In southern Sonoma Valley, there are saline intrusion issues from San Pablo Bay, and we have significantly increased the use of recycled water for both farmers and to help restore abandoned salt ponds.”
  7. Integrated water management: “We are working closely with our contractors to encourage them to use Russian River water in rainy years when it’s plentiful, thereby allowing the groundwater wells to recharge. We have a long way to go though to incorporate all the elements of a successful integrated management plan.”

He said that despite their efforts, there are still areas where groundwater is declining and salt water intrusion is increasing, and the drought is exacerbating these impacts. “We’re asking whether we need to look at other approaches to management, including land use policies and regulatory driven approaches.”

Funding is a challenge as well. “We’ve been able to receive state funding to support some of our projects, but it takes a significant local investment to implement these programs on a continual basis,” he said, noting that to date, most of the funding has come through water rates paid by urban users, while most of the groundwater use and resulting impacts are in non-urban areas. “The urban stakeholders are expressing reluctance to continue funding groundwater management programs unless agricultural, rural, and other interest groups start to fund projects and programs, but it’s very difficult to get funding from these sectors because agriculture in general and rural residential are not organized or represented by a water district or a JPA, so we are dealing with a large number of independent operators.

So in closing, the state could support local groundwater management by providing funding mechanisms and incentives to organize and participate in groundwater management to help alleviate these potentially divisive issues – for example, providing funding and expertise in the creation of water districts or JPAs,” said Mr. Davis. “And lastly, the state could also help the local level by providing incentives for streamlined permitting for projects within an approved groundwater management plan. One type of project where there is a lot of community enthusiasm is for stormwater recharge projects, which is a challenging aspect to permit.”

John Rossi, General Manager of Western Municipal Water District

John Rossi began by noting that Western Municipal Water District is a wholesale and retail agency in Riverside with a service area of about 500 square miles in the Santa Ana watershed.  Mr. Rossi said that he is one of two watermasters on the San Bernardino and Riverside groundwater basins, which is primarily a reporting and a monitoring function. “There are five watermasters on the Santa Ana River, which is about a 2000 square mile watershed,” he said. “We account for water upstream, downstream, or upper and lower watershed, and both of these report to active court functions.”

RossiThere was a stipulated agreement in 1978 that came about after nearly a decade of arguments. “The parties came together and decided they were going to ask the judge to stipulate an agreement rather than litigate through that process,” he said. In 1999, the group went to the court and said it isn’t working very well, and the court gave them 18 months to collectively decide how to manage themselves. “The parties got together and hired an engineer to come in and develop what they called the Optimum Basin Management Program which has nine elements,” he said. Those elements included quality, quantity, subsidence issues, groundwater desalting, and hydraulic control, as well as low water quality going downstream in the Santa Ana River to Orange County which had to be dealt with.

What I found in each of these four areas, there was a hammer that came up in some place or time when the parties had reason to look more inward and say we have a problem, we have to deal with this,” he said. “Whether it’s regulation, whether it’s a loss of production abilities to water crops or provide municipal services, the parties found a way to get to the table and find solutions. Each of these stipulated agreements have in common a long term focus. They are each looking at where we are going to be 10 years from now, 20 years from now.”

I believe that groundwater basins are most valuable in the state picture in the water action plan is as a buffer,” he said. “Here we are in extremely dry situation, and they can be used in extreme ways when we know how we are going to replenish them, when we know how we are going to interact with surface water, when we have a plan, and when we have financial mechanisms.” He noted that one of their struggles is that they don’t have funding set aside for groundwater recharge should the opportunity arise in a wet year.

Having that long term focus is something that has really benefitted these agencies and in each of these cases, those declining water levels have are now bouncing in a place they probably should be,” he said, noting that there are still a lot of things to discuss and arm wrestle over.

Dan Wendell, Nature Conservancy

We’ve known since the 1940s that there are only two sources of sustainable water supply out of wells,” began Dan Wendell. “One is induced recharge from overflowing recharge areas which are pretty rare, and the other is capture of groundwater that would have otherwise discharged to streams and lakes. This is something we know. In other words, the capture of water that goes to streams or lakes is going to result in decreased streamflow. Therefore, groundwater pumping is only truly sustainable to the degree that we accept the associated impacts to these surface water systems.

Dan_WendellGroundwater pumping is really just another way of diverting surface water,” he said. “Groundwater systems are storage and conveyance systems, not new sources of water supply. However, California’s law and regulations do not recognize these physical relationships, and instead allow for relatively unconstrained groundwater pumping while exercising a permit system for surface water. The results have been unsatisfactory for most all perspectives, having led to widespread lowering of water tables that has dried up shallow wells, loss of perennial flow in streams that is needed for salmon migration and riparian habitat, land subsidence and the impairment of existing surface water rights.”

To manage groundwater in a sustainable fashion, every significant and unadjudicated basin in the state needs to have clearly defined limits on groundwater pumping and water level fluctuations, and the stabilization of water levels, he said.  “This approach needs to recognize the tradeoffs between groundwater pumping and surface water impacts and be arrived at in an open collaborative and stakeholder driven process that accounts for the economic benefits of land cultivation, but also the economic and cultural benefits of instream flows for an important species of fish, the maintenance of important riparian habitat, at least in select streams, and existing surface water rights,” he said.

A key measure of success in basins where groundwater levels are still near the surface will be maintenance of perennial flow in key streams and safeguard of established surface water rights,” he said. “In basins where groundwater is already strongly decoupled from surface water systems, such as many areas in the southern San Joaquin Valley, the simple stabilization of water levels and the avoidance of additional impacts such as land subsidence may be the best that we can hope for in the foreseeable future. Key measures of success in these cases would be groundwater level changes that average out to zero over a period of time, say 10 years.”

Many people automatically assume that overdrafted groundwater basins, especially where land subsidence and well failures are present, have the most complex and pressing problems and therefore require the most intention and money, but we don’t agree,” said Mr. Wendell. “If we want to avoid problems in areas that are reasonably healthy today, it is imperative that we consider the overall value of the hydrologic system, both to man and to nature. Time is of the essence in these cases, since the environmental and surface water rights impacts occur very early in groundwater development, when modest water level declines of only 20 to 40 feet can result in significant depletion of streamflow and even perhaps loss of perennial flow and the impact of surface water rights.”

WendellThe Sacramento Valley still has water levels that are fairly shallow,” he said. “There are numerous perennial streams and healthy ecosystems, and the basin is largely within a reasonable definition of sustainable groundwater yield. However, since the 1940s, groundwater discharge to streams in this area has decreased by about 600,000 acre-feet per year due to groundwater pumping, and it’s going to decrease an additional 600,000 acre-feet in coming years under 2009 status quo conditions due to the time it takes effects of groundwater pumping to reach streams. It takes years to decades, our work is showing.”

This represents a loss of 1.2 million acre-feet of stream flow,” Mr. Wendell said. “This is real water. This is streamflow that would have otherwise ended up in the Delta. And our current estimates are that 400,000 acre-feet of this 1.2 MAF per year is lost export capacity. This represents a very real decrease in the yield of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, especially for purveyors south of the Delta. At a time when we’re trying to increase water supplies, we are actually moving in opposite direction from the perspective of these particular areas.”

Successful groundwater management will require the use of robust models, most of which exist today in key basins, informed decision making, adaptive, flexible and inclusive management approaches that are implemented locally wherever possible, active recharge projects, and some mechanism to ensure that limits on groundwater pumping and water level fluctuations in groundwater basins are arrived at in an reasonable fashion and are properly implemented and maintained,” he said. “And some form of bad cop to make sure these things really happen, because these actions are commonly perceived as going against local self interests. In other words, we’re at the tragedy of the commons.”

Discussion highlights …

Felicia Marcus asked what are the things the SWB think about doing first?

Grant Davis: “We’re at a stage with the drought and with different groundwater basins where incentives ought to be the first approach. The state has the ability to help us come up with localized approaches that will work depending on the regions and what type of support is there. … On top of that, you need to help other areas to bring the stakeholders together and make sure that all interests are represented, and that’s sort of the very beginning stages of groundwater management. Others are more advanced than that, but I would maintain for the state really right now to incentivize those sorts of approaches to begin the basic understanding of how it’s connected, and then the more complex stuff will come.

John Rossi:In a period of two or three years, the basin got together down in Chino and looked at several core elements. You have to monitor what the production is. You have to know where some of the quality issues are. You need to know what the basin levels, are they rising or falling. It doesn’t take a long period of time to figure out where the basin’s headed. You can argue about a lot of the details beyond that but it’s getting those basics down. I think every basin of any significant size needs to get its arms around that. …

Tom Gohring: “A one size fits all can be really problematic because each basin is really different. We’ve talked a lot about groundwater level. Well you go down to Tulare Lake where they have a confined aquifer, and there’s no such thing as groundwater level. It’s piezometric head, and you have to tailor a metric to the specific example.”

Coming tomorrow in part 2 …

  • Leon Szeptcycki from Stanford’s Water in the West Program, Eric Averett from the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, Linda Siefert with the California State Association of Counties, John Sweigard with the Merced Irrigation District, and Vanessa La Piedra with the Santa Clara Valley Water District disucc what tools, authorities, and incentives are available and what others are needed to sustainably manage groundwater.

For more information …

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