The Tipping Point: How 2016 will shape California’s water future

California Aqueduct through the Central Valley June 2015 #1SGMA implementation and the spending rules for Prop 1 water storage funds all present important opportunities to change California’s water management practices, say the Union of Concerned Scientists

With the state remaining gripped in drought and El Nino not providing the hoped-for relief, drought and climate change impacts are being felt statewide, and the state is poised to address these challenges.  This year alone, two sets of rules will come out that will shape large parts of our water infrastructure for the next 50-100 years: implementation the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the billions of dollars from Prop 1 that will be funding water storage projects.  The Union of Concerned Scientists point out that this represents an opportunity for scientists and the public to weigh in on these processes.

ucs logoAt the end of January, Adrienne Alvord and Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith with the Union of Concerned Scientists held a webinar to explain why they feel this year is a ‘tipping point’ for California water, and how the public can get involved.

Adrienne Alvord is the California and western states director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She began the webinar with a review of the water policy landscape over the last few years, why the Union of Concerned Scientists chose to get involved in the issue of climate and water, and outline why they feel the approach to water California is currently using needs to change.

Water management in California has been contentious for over a century with different interests competing for water resources in an arid state,” Ms. Alvord began. “The primary controversies have been about where and to whom to allocate water resources to accommodate a large and growing population and a highly diverse economy that includes the richest agricultural production in the United States, along with the megacities that have grown up in highly arid regions of Southern California. Stresses on water systems have also brought challenges to preserving aquatic ecosystems and sufficient supplies for fishing, recreation, tribal rights, and local communities.”

The vast majority of this competition for water has been over surface water supplies. California, along with other Western states, built a system in the 20th century that was designed to capture winter snowmelt and precipitation in one of the state’s approximately 1300 reservoirs and then convey the water through a system of canals, pipes, and pumps to agricultural and urban users.”

Groundwater use, though an important component of state water supplies, has been largely unregulated outside of a few adjudicated basins, mostly in Southern California,” she said. “Groundwater has often been the fallback supply when surface water supplies are stressed in dry years. Both surface and groundwater supplies have been severely stressed during the drought we have experienced in California that began in 2011 and led to dramatically reduced surface water deliveries. This resulted in unprecedented groundwater pumping to make up for reduced surface water, leading to massive groundwater withdrawals and land subsidence, especially in the agricultural areas of the San Joaquin Valley.”

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_05As the water crisis deepens, the state legislature for the first time passed a comprehensive groundwater law in 2014. While the timeline is unusually long to meet the requirements of the legislation with full implementation not complete until 2040, this law was the first time the state was required to create rules or controls on statewide groundwater use.”

Another consequence of the drought that occurred in 2014 was the passage of the water bond for roughly $7.5 billion by a vote on statewide Proposition 1. One of the primary drivers to pass the bond which was approved by over a 2/3rds vote of the people was the desire to provide water infrastructure that would help ease the drought and prevent future shortages. Neither the water bond nor the groundwater law made specific mention of the need for new approaches to managing surface and groundwater due to climate change. But scientists have said that the historically unprecedented severity of the drought is linked to climate change.”

As Stanford scientist Noah Diffenbaugh and Chris Fields noted in a September 2015 New York Times editorial, California is facing a new climate reality in which extreme drought is more likely,” Ms. Alvord said. “The state’s water rights, infrastructure, and management were designed for an old climate, one that no longer exists.”

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_06The Union of Concerned Scientists has long been involved in climate research, education, and policy in California. Much of our work focuses on climate mitigation, especially in the transportation and energy sectors, but we also pioneered the first state climate assessment of climate impacts in California back in the year 2000. In recent years, our national work has been more focused on climate impacts and preparedness with a focus on sea level rise and flooding in East Coast states, and wildfire in the intermountain west.”

As we considered a fresh approach to climate impacts in California, it was clear that water resources management was going to be hugely impacted by climate, and that water managers at the state level were not necessarily incorporating the science of climate change into their infrastructure and management decisions, despite a wealth of good scientific information. We believe UCS’s unique combination of science and advocacy can add value in this space.

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_08Up to now, most planners and project designers have relied on existing data and past experience to help guide their decisions,” she said. “With climate change, we need to rely on science and projections that include uncertainty and risk, because we can no longer rely on the past to be a guide to the future. Science is not perfect; for example, many climate models and published studies have actually not anticipated how quickly and severely projected impacts would occur. But science and climate modeling is improving, and it’s the best tool we have. The problem is how to use it.”

We do not lack for scientific data; in fact, we have lots of science. California completed its third climate impacts assessment in 2012, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and National Climate Assessment both published exhaustive updated reports on climate in 2014. Increasingly, local governments are turning to local university science to help educate them on what climate change will mean in their areas. But while California has great science and scientists, they are not often in a position to advocate for actually using the science.”

The incorporation of climate change into policies and planning

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_09State policy and most Californians now acknowledge that climate change is real and we have policies to help mitigate its impacts, but existing planning cultures and a lack of professional training and education for planners along with readily available science that is comprehensible and useful to practitioners have all been among the barriers to ensuring that the science is used effectively in water planning and infrastructure decisions,” she said. “Meanwhile, these NASA images from outer space demonstrate that we are rapidly losing water. In fact, we are among the three regions in the world where we’re mostly rapidly drawing down our water supplies. We need to act and act soon.”

To highlight what can happen when climate science is ignored in water management decisions, Dr. Juliet Christian Smith has drawn attention to three ‘climate-water disconnects’:

San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge: “Two years after the completion of the project, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission found that sea level rise is expected to permanently inundate several areas of the new span and recommended several million dollars in new construction – public dollars that could be saved if the bridge’s designers had incorporated climate science.”  (Read here: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters: How the Bay Bridge Was Rebuilt Without Considering Climate Change)

Lake Mendocino:The federal Army Corps of Engineers, following guidance that hadn’t been updated since 1959, released millions of gallons of water based on outdated scheduling, despite the fact that reservoir levels had fallen dramatically and we were in the middle of an unprecedented drought.” (Read here: A Dam Waste: Outdated Reservoir Rules Dump Water During Drought)

California Water Commission’s water storage project regulations:The state commission charged with overseeing $2.7 billion in state water bond funds for water infrastructure projects initially failed to explicitly consider whether proposed water projects would work under future conditions, which climate science tells us will be quite different than in the past. More recently, the Commission incorporated some future projections, but these rules fell decades short of looking at future conditions over the lifetime of these new projects.” (Read here: Water Bond Blunders: It’s Time for California to Stop Looking to the Past and Start Planning for the Future)

The science on how climate change will impact water tells us that assumptions about when, where, and how precipitation will fall are changing and will continue to change with dramatic and even potentially catastrophic results if we do not reduce global emissions dramatically,” Ms. Alvord said. Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_11We are going to see more precipitation fall as rain and less as snow in California, which means we will need to rethink our historic strategy of relying on spring snowmelt to fill reservoirs and provide surface water in summer and fall season dry months. There is increasingly likelihood and frequency of what up to now have been considered extreme events, both wet and dry. We are going to be increasingly dependent on groundwater supplies that we can store in wet years and pump out in dry years. This phenomenon will required careful planning so that we can prepared for new conditions.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists is not approaching these questions from a sectoral standpoint,” she said. “We do not look at water management through the lens of what might be needed for agricultural, urban, or environmental users of water. Rather, we’re trying to highlight how dramatic change will impact all uses, and what some of the new criteria need to be for making better choices.

This year, California will be making a decision on water infrastructure and management that will have an impact for decades to come,” Ms. Alvord said. “The question is whether these decisions will turn into more examples of expensive, risky disconnects or whether they will truly serve the water needs of the state as conditions change. We hope you will join us in ensuring good science is being used to make good decisions, that decisions are made with transparency, and can be reviewed by the public, and that the current rules that we have that create these climate-water disconnects are changed and reflect the new reality.”

The tipping points

Dr. Juliet Christian Smith, Climate Scientist, then discussed the areas of decision making this year that the UCS says present a tipping point for critical opportunities to change the way the state approaches water management.

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_13A tipping point is the critical point in the process or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable change takes place,” Dr. Christian-Smith began, noting three reasons why 2016 represents a tipping point for water:

Impacts of climate change: “After four years of exceptional drought, we’re entering into what is projected to be an exceptionally wet year. Climate change impacts can be seen in real time, leading to an unprecedented decision making environment where the past is much less helpful in understanding the present, and is not helpful in planning for the future.”

Regulation of groundwater:After a century of treating groundwater like an unlimited resource, the consequences of our groundwater depletion are being seen across the state, from land sinking in the Central Valley to valuable coastal aquifers becoming saline due to seawater intrusion. A new law requires more sustainable groundwater management and this year, state water regulators are writing critical rules that will set the bar for what sustainability means in practice.”

The water bond:After six years of political wrangling, we finally have new financial resources to update California’s water system to make it more resilient and reliable. This year, state water regulators are writing the regulations that will govern how a large chunk of this money will be spent.”

Sustainable Groundwater Management Implementation

For more than aTipping point complete slide deck_Page_15 century, California has relied on its snowmelt-fed reservoirs, rivers, and streams for the majority of its water, but drought and climate change are depleting those traditional supplies,” she said. “The drought reduced surface water supplies, leaving many people to shift to groundwater sources. Indeed, half of our water came from groundwater during the drought with severe consequences for local groundwater levels.”

As this graphic shows, in just one year, groundwater levels declined by 10 feet in much of the northern Central Valley and as much as 60 feet in some areas of the southern Central Valley.”

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_16We’ve been documenting this shift, and produced a fact sheet called the Big Water Supply Shift that describes how groundwater is key to water security in California’s changing climate, and how sustainable groundwater management can help protect California from both severe droughts and severe floods.” (Click here to read the report, The Big Water Supply Shift.)

One of the things that has hampered water management in the past is our understanding of the system,” Dr. Christian-Smith said. “As many of you are familiar with the hydrologic cycle, you might not be aware of the fact that we have been managing this system with very little information about half of it. Just this last year, Governor Brown and the legislature made well logs public for the first time, so that means in the first time in state’s history, we will know where wells are and how deep they’ve been drilled. This will give us some information about groundwater flows and water tables, empirical information that will then be required to be collected annually and reported in new groundwater sustainability plans that are required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which many of us refer to as SGMA.”

SGMA was passed in 2014, and it was a historic step towards more sustainable groundwater management and the first requirement for comprehensive groundwater measurement and management in California. But like most legislation, the act is very high level, and many of the details of implementation are going to be worked out by state water regulators this year.

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_21In the past, I’ve described SGMA as a groundwater GPS, and essentially this cartoon boils down this almost 50 page act into one slide,” she said. “The folks in the car are listening to their GPS tell them that they have arrived at an exciting destination, which happens to be straight off the edge of a cliff. In many ways, groundwater management up until this point has been a bit like this. A lot of nice sounding objectives, but not enough specificity to avoid driving many groundwater tables off of a cliff.

The box at the bottom reads, ‘why you need to be specific with the GPS,’ and the SGMA requires specificity by asking groundwater basins to be managed with a very specific destination in mind – that being sustainable yield, or the level of groundwater pumping that can occur without harming human uses or ecosystem uses. It also steers us clear of dangerous cliffs, cliffs like the undesirable results that are listed in the law. These include chronic lowering of groundwater levels, land subsidence or sinking, seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers, degradation of water quality, and depletion of surface water that’s connected to groundwater systems.

Finally, the act requires a clear map explaining how groundwater basins will get to their destinations, these are groundwater sustainability plans,” Dr. Christian-Smith said. “And these plans have to track the speed at which they are traveling. The first groundwater sustainability plan is due in 2020 for many basins with multiple subsequent updates.”

One way of thinking about this is that a groundwater plan now has to give the specific coordinates of where a groundwater basin is headed, and if those coordinates are off or look like they may drive a basin off of a cliff, the state can take the wheel. This is often referred to as the state backstop; the state can actually step in and start managing groundwater basins as soon as next year in 2017 if they are unable to establish appropriate local agencies.

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_22This year, the state is writing the rules for how the maps or the groundwater sustainability plans should be made,” she said. “These rules will both tell the local groundwater agencies what they need to include in their plans and how the state will evaluate the adequacy of plans that they submit. In many ways, this sets the bar for what sustainability will mean in practice.”

Because groundwater flows between counties and local jurisdictions but is essentially a shared resource like a street or highway, the regulations could help avoid chaos by presenting a clear framework that sets up some minimum requirements; for instance, speed limits that don’t change from county to county. Or, on the other hand, unclear regulations could lead to chaos, essentially more of the same where everyone looks out for their own interests leading to a collective traffic jam.”

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_25To understand how local agencies might develop effective groundwater sustainability plans and to inform the regulations currently under development, here at UCS we authored a report called ‘Measuring What Matters’, which provides a review of the state of knowledge and practice related to designing sustainable groundwater management systems, and it draws on examples from other states and countries,” Dr. Christian-Smith said. (Click here to the report: Measuring What Matters)

The Union of Concerned Scientists in partnership with the California Water Foundation convened a multi-stakeholder roundtable to inform the report’s findings. The roundtable met twice last summer and involved voices from counties, water suppliers, academics, agriculture, under-represented communities and environmental interests throughout California.

Based on this dialog, the following conclusions and recommendations were developed for the state’s approach to defining and evaluating groundwater sustainability plans:

First, there needs to be a common framework for setting thresholds and interim milestones. This framework must rely on state standards and policies where they exist, and create common rules and methodologies where there are no state standards and the basins have a great deal of flexibility.”

Secondly, identify existing data sources for basin conditions. The state has an important role to play in identifying where to find data to be used in groundwater sustainability plans, and could lead efforts to improve groundwater data and monitoring networks where gaps or inconsistencies currently exist.”

In order to treat all basins fairly, the state should require basins have access to some consistent data when assessing their groundwater conditions over time, and also require consistent assumptions to develop sustainable yield. The Act requires that groundwater basins achieve a sustainable yield by 2040, and since that’s so far ahead of us, most basins will use models to project how changing land and water uses; management approaches and other factors like climate change, will affect the basin’s water budget. Because assumptions drive modeling efforts, it will be critical for the state to define common assumptions for use when developing sustainable yields.”

Finally, developing common metrics and consistent data management and reporting protocols. Local agencies need state guidance to ensure that basins are using the same information and the same measurement units to describe undesirable results and report information in a manner that will support cooperative interbasin and intrabasin communication and coordination, as well as to protect all basin water users.”

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_27So there are some important decisions and opportunities for involvement ahead,” Dr. Christian-Smith said.  “The draft regulations for what will be included in the groundwater sustainability plans will be published in the coming weeks. The Department of Water Resources will present these draft regulations to the California Water Commission potentially at their February 17th meeting, and there will be opportunity for public testimony and opening for public comment once those regulations become available.”

NOTE: The draft regulations for groundwater sustainability plans and alternatives were released last week for public review.  The comment period closes on March 24, 2016.  Review the draft regulations here.

COMING TOMORROW: DWR’s presentation of the draft regulations as presented to the California Water Commission

Prop 1 water storage funds

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_29This year, state water regulators are writing the rules for how some of Proposition 1 money will be spent,” Dr. Christian-Smith said. “The bond earmarks $2.7 billion for water infrastructure projects. This includes the above ground surface storage and also below ground groundwater recharge projects; these projects tend to be long-lived with some having life spans of over 100 years. The Union of Concerned Scientists is interested in ensuring that water infrastructure projects that the public pays for today will deliver tomorrow, and we want to encourage a resilient and reliable water system that can withstand more severe conditions that are more likely due to climate change.”

Tipping point complete slide deck_Page_31We have a couple concerns with the way that the California Water Commission has been discussing climate change in their working draft regulations,” she said. “First, the draft regulations freeze climate change at 2050, meaning that after 2050, they will assume no changes, and that conditions will remain the same, despite climate projections that indicate that conditions are likely to significantly worsen after mid Century. Even in cases where a project has an expected lifespan well beyond 2050, the working draft regulations do not require any analysis of how conditions may change after mid-century.

In addition, the Commission has discussed using a median approach,” Dr. Christian-Smith said. “This is not a true statistical median, but a scenario that returns results that are in the middle of the road – not particularly hot or cold, not particularly wet or dry. And in some cases, we do want a middle of the road approach to planning, but when we are risk-averse, we often choose more precautionary approaches that will prepare us for more severe conditions.”

For example, the way we prepare for earthquakes in infrastructure planning and development. The rationale for using a middle of the road approach was that climate projections introduced too much complexity and uncertainty. However, we have been able to proactively manage earthquake uncertainty successfully in California by requiring buildings to be able to withstand severe seismic activity, despite a limited understanding or great amount of uncertainty around where, when, the next earthquake will hit or with what force.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists will be submitting public comments and providing public testimony. “If you share the UCS concerns related to incorporating the best available science, we urge you to write the California Water Commission, and if possible, come to the meeting on March 16,” Dr. Christian-Smith said.  “On January 29, the draft regulations were published … March 14th is the end of the public comment period. The regulations will then go to the Office of Administrative Law for final review.”

In conclusion …

This morning, we’ve been discussing some of the important decisions that are being made this year that will shape California’s water future for many years to come,” said Dr. Christian-Smith. “Historically, these decisions have not been made with much involvement with the scientific community or much public scrutiny. In fact, many of the meetings I attend, there are only a dozen or so people present. We want to help change this by informing experts and engaged Californians about the opportunities to get involved in the conversation. It’s going to be a busy year, we’re working to tip the scales in the favor of science and democracy, and would love to partner with you.”

Thank you so much for joining us …

Questions and answers

The question was asked about the role of the Union of Concerned Scientists and what they were advocating for.

In general, we are focused on ensuring that the best science is used in decision-making processes, and that the decision making processes that are preparing us for making public investments in the future use the science that is available that indicates that the future will be very different from the past,” said Dr. Christian Smith. “We’re also interested in increasing transparency in allowing the public to review information and decisions in a transparent and accessible manner, so we’re always working on both of those fronts.”

Ms. Alvord added that while the question of water demands for urban, agricultural, and ecosystem is an important question, they are not looking at these issues from a sectoral standpoint. “We are looking from an overall approach that incorporates science, so we can understand better how the water system works. Obviously that will have consequences down the line in terms of how we allocate water, but at this point we think its most important to promote education and incorporation of science by policy makers and practitioners so that they are in a position to make the best decisions, and then I think the sectoral conversations will continue as they have for as long as we’ve been a state on how we should best allocate water.

The question was asked if the UCS had a way to make science more relevant to decision makers over corporate and people’s emotional needs?

Here at UCS, we actually spend a great deal of time, not only communicating with policy makers but also with studying communications and trying to understand how we can make highly complex topics more relevant,” replied Ms. Alvord. “This usually has to do particularly with elected policy makers with the impacts on their constituents and what it means for them, so we have done a lot of specific looking at what’s going on in different parts of the state and try to approach elected policy makers through that lens. The water community is very large in California, and it’s already split between several sectors, and these sectors are pretty powerful, but I think because of the fact that we’re looking at this not through a question of who should get what – in other words, we’re not self-interested in this is a sense; we just want to make sure that all the rules are made in a way that takes the best possible information into account. I think that gives us a unique credibility. Science is still seen a highly credible voice, polls reinforce that all the time, so that does give us a leg up.”

Obviously like most non-profits, we don’t have the same level of resources as some of the other stakeholders, but what we’ve found is that continually going and testifying about what the data says over time has a powerful impact, so I think it’s a combination of trying to appeal to the self-interests of policy makers and coming to them with the best possible data,” Ms. Alvord continued. “More voices in this space are needed, and that’s one of the purposes of this webinar. We would like to see more people advocating on behalf of good science and the fact that we need to prepare for a different future than what we’ve seen in the past.”

For additional materials from the Union of Concerned Scientists …

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