Panel tackles the question of what is a ‘groundwater-dependent ecosystem’ and how that fits into the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, was passed in 2014 by the state legislature, and for the first time, it requires agencies around the state to sustainably manage their groundwater basins. SGMA requires that in operating the groundwater basin sustainably, managers must avoid six ‘significant and unreasonable’ results: reductions of groundwater levels, the reduction of groundwater storage, sea water intrusion, degraded water quality, land subsidence, and lastly, depletions of interconnected surface water that has significant and adverse impacts on beneficial uses of the surface water.
The legislation gives little guidance or further definition of ‘depletions of interconnected surface waters’ means, or even much guidance as to what is ‘significant and unreasonable,’ leaving it up to the newly forming local agencies to decide. In many cases, there is little data that has been collected on groundwater and surface water interactions, so there is much uncharted territory ahead. At the California Water Policy Conference held last May, a panel discussed just what the term ‘groundwater dependent ecosystem’ means and how to move forward despite the uncertainties.
Seated on the panel was Scott Matyac, water resources manager for the Yuba County Water Agency; Dan McManus, supervising engineer geologist for the Department of Water Resources; Sandi Matsumoto, associated director of Integrated Water Management with The Nature Conservancy; and Konrad Fisher, executive director of Klamath Riverkeeper. The panel was moderated by Jennifer Clary, water policy analyst for Clean Water Action.
The discussion began with each of the panelists taking a few minutes to introduce themselves and explain their areas of expertise.
“I’m Scott Matyac with Yuba County Water Agency. We’re located in Yuba County in the south central portion of the Sacramento Valley. My role is in the water planning and management activities and these include developing agricultural groundwater and integrated regional water management plans, directing the conjunctive management portion of the Yuba River Accord, and managing the wholesale irrigation water supplies to our eight member irrigation districts.”
“Yuba County Water Agency owns and operates a 1 million acre-foot reservoir, New Bullards Bar reservoir, which has an installed hydroelectric capacity of about 400 megawatts. Our mission is flood control, water supply, fishery enhancement, and power generation. We’re a wholesale irrigation water supplier of surface water, but we also serve as a groundwater manager of Yuba County, and that involves conjunctive management of both our surface water and groundwater supplies, formulating and implementing the groundwater management plans, and under SGMA, we’re the Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the south Yuba subbasin and a portion of the north Yuba subbasin.”
“All of these roles have a strong stream aquifer interaction context. In terms of SGMA, probably the best outcome for our local area would be to preserve the balance that we currently have with groundwater and surface water supplies, but with the recent drought, we realized we’d like to do a better job of maintaining a drought buffer to guard against drought conditions.”
“I’m Dan McManus. I work with the Department of Water Resources; I’ve had about 25 years working in the water resources investigations. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on both demand side and supply side of projects. I worked on geotechnical studies for dam site investigations. I’ve done a geomorphology study of the Sacramento River and the tributaries, water quality investigations, and then mostly in my career, groundwater management and groundwater projection studies. Recently I got to be a co-lead on the California Water Plan; we put out a really nice groundwater report that went with that plan. It was one of the first times we really injected quite a bit of groundwater content into the California Water Plan.”
“Up until just this last summer, I worked in the regional office in Red Bluff; I was the branch chief there for the geology and groundwater branch and the land-water use branch. One of the nice things there was that working with the land use folks, it gave me a real appreciation and the understanding of our land use planning side of things and our water resources side of things and the connection between those two and the importance of working together.”
“Last summer, I had the opportunity to come down and help with implementation of SGMA with DWR. My whole career has been about groundwater for the most part, and it’s a great opportunity, so I’m now working in Sacramento with a small group of folks on SGMA on the Groundwater Sustainability Plan regulations. I was the lead on the basin prioritization project which ended up getting rolled in to the SGMA .. that’s being updated and so our primary focus is getting the draft regulations out by June, and then work on the Best Management Practices.”
“I’m Sandi Matsumoto, and I am the Associate Director of Integrated Water Management with The Nature Conservancy. I live here in Davis, and as you may know, Davis is a groundwater dependent community, so our water comes from the ground. We have plans to diversify that water, but through this drought and previously, we’ve been a fully groundwater dependent community. Six months ago, I was looking around the house and I noticed there’s a new crack over there … the next day as I was going out to walk the dog, I noticed that the wooden frame around my door was bowing out, and so this, groundwater is coming home to roost. It’s affecting everybody. Our house is sinking and my house is expressing it in angry ways.”
“This is very real. There are communities that don’t have drinking water right now; there are major pieces of infrastructure around the state that we all have paid for that are sinking and being affected; and there are homes being affected. Groundwater is vitally important to all of us and we should all care about what’s happening.”
“The Nature Conservancy was involved in the SGMA formation and the development of the legislation, because 95% of the historic wetlands and rivers in California are gone. A lot of that has to do with diversions and how we use water, but it’s also because of the way that we’ve been extracting groundwater. We did a study that looked at the historical impacts of groundwater pumping in the Central Valley, and what it told us was that we have a clear trend, which is groundwater overdraft is killing our rivers.”
“The rivers of the Central Valley were basically these awesome surface expressions of healthy groundwater systems. We had so much groundwater under the valley floor that it would pop up and run and flow as streams and would contribute to our river streams. They are called gaining streams when the rivers are actually gaining water from the groundwater system. Over time we have reversed that dynamic; we saw it most starkly in the Tulare Basin which had reversed from a gaining system to a losing system by the early 1900s. By mid-century, the San Joaquin basin was in a similar situation, converted from gaining systems to losing systems.”
“Perhaps most disturbing and a big, big reason why we ended up with strange bedfellows in the SGMA process, was that we saw the Sacramento Valley, the source of most of water supply for the entire state, was converting or being on that tipping point of moving from a gaining system to a losing system. The implications for surface water rights are enormous, and for that reason, we were able to work with a bunch of stakeholders to push for SGMA.”
“SGMA basically says we have a problem and we need to fix it. We can’t keep unsustainably pumping our groundwater. Where we are today is how are we going to do that; where are we going to draw the line. That has been left to the communities, so the way that SGMA is structured is based on local implementation, so that means each of us in our communities will be applying our values and our judgments to how we manage groundwater going forward.”
“The Nature Conservancy is hugely invested in this because we know those decisions will be made on a local level and we can make the decision to have rivers, wetlands, springs, streams, all the things that we the Nature Conservancy care about – or not. We will be drawing the line on the groundwater use, we will be saying enough is enough. The question is where will we, in our individual communities, draw that line? Will it be after the river runs dry, after the wetlands are gone, after we have no more birds coming into our region? Those are the very real questions and judgments that communities need to be making in the coming years.”
“It’s a huge and complicated system. The groundwater and surface water is hugely complicated, and then you add the ecological reaction to all of those things, so we are working to help identify the science behind groundwater dependent ecosystems. What are they, where are they, what do they need, how can we manage for them? Just answering some basic questions. We’ll be putting out a statewide database later this year that will help communities identify where potential groundwater dependent ecosystems exist. It is a starting point for communities to say, we need to incorporate these into our sustainability plans, so how do we do it? It helps harness limited resources and points them in a direction.”
“To me, the heart of SGMA is in the first word. It’s sustainable. And sustainability comes from the development world where it’s about providing for current and future generations and needs, and in providing for current and future generations, I think we need to be considering communities, agriculture, industry, and our natural communities, the springs and rivers and wetlands that all of us enjoy out in the natural environment.”
“I’m Konrad Fisher; I work for Klamath Riverkeeper. We exist in large part to advocate on behalf of the people who depend on the flowing rivers, whether it’s for food sustainability, food sources, or jobs, recreation, and people who just straight up value flowing rivers for their intrinsic value. So a lot of what we have done is advocate for implementation of existing laws that favor that rivers should have water. There are a lot of good laws dealing with surface water, but until recently, California groundwater was a free for all, I would say it probably still is, but we have something to go on right now.”
“All of our work to enforce surface water laws is useful but there’s always going to be an elephant in the room, which is unregulated and unquantified groundwater extraction. And in our backyard, there really is no check. We have many times pleaded with Siskiyou County to stop issuing new well permits until they know there’s water available to be appropriated, but they really don’t want to hear it. Even in my previous jobs, we had Nestle in our backyard trying to build one of the biggest bottling plants. I thought OK, this might be an opportunity to ally with the Farm Bureau and the County and maybe ban the export of groundwater. The Farm Bureau was for it but ultimately Siskiyou County said we don’t want to touch it, so they are really averse to curtailing groundwater use in any way.”
“When we heard the Governor was trying to implement a groundwater bill in California, I dropped everything and we started meeting and figuring out what language we wanted to introduce that would protect specifically surface water. There were other interests in the room, but the interests that wanted to protect surface flows and those to protect water for basic human needs were somewhat aligned because unsustainable extraction can deplete households as well as rivers. So I think at the end of the day, the bill is better than it otherwise would have been. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not enough, so I think there’s a lot left to do with DWR’s regulations, with DWR’s best management practices, and on the local level of getting GSAs to go hopefully above and beyond what SGMA requires. I’m going to argue that there are other laws, not just SGMA, that GSAs are bound to abide by.”
Moderator Jennifer Clary asked Dan about the basin prioritization process. “I want to go back to the prioritization. There are 515 groundwater basins in California, but only 127 of them are subject to SGMA; that prioritization from borrowed from a prior program, the CASGEM, which was passed by the legislature in 2009 and instituted in 2012, but that prioritization process doesn’t currently include ecosystem or surface water impacts, so that prioritization process will have to be updated. I will start by asking Dan what factors DWR plans to use to determine when surface water impacts warrant prioritizing a basin as high or medium priority and subject to SGMA?
“When the legislation first came out in the fall of 2014, it had the new criteria for the component in the CASGEM list of components, which is you have to evaluate adverse impacts to habitat and streamflow in the ranking of high and medium priority basins. Initially, the prioritization as of January 2015 was supposed to be the prioritization that we moved forward with for the implementation of SGMA. It didn’t take very long to realize that in order to evaluate what are those impacts to habitat and streamflow, we needed that data and that data wasn’t located in any one particular place. It wasn’t digitally available, it wasn’t spatially available, and so we went ahead and adopted our June 2014 results with the thought of trying to rectify those data gaps.”
“Impacts to habitat and sreamflow is just one of eight components … We knew there were certain streams that were being depleted by overpumping of groundwater, so for certain basins, they did receive some points for that criteria. Subsequently after the revision after the SGMA legislation, number 8 specifically came dedicated to impacts for habitat and streamflow. But the thing to keep in mind, it is only one of 8 components, so even if that component gets its full weighting of priority, it would only be maybe 13% of the total weighting for that basin.”
“So how do we do that? First of all, we need to identify whether the surface water system is connected or disconnected from the groundwater system, so that’s the first thing we’re looking at is looking at groundwater levels, what are the shallow groundwater levels in that basin, and identify whether there is a potential that the stream is still interconnected. We know some of the streams in the San Joaquin Valley are disconnected by hundreds of feet.”
“The other thing we have to look at is what is the groundwater extraction occurring in the basin, so clearly you can have a connected stream, but if the groundwater demand is very low – less than 200,000 acre-feet for a very large basin, chances are it’s not significantly impacting the surface flow of the streams. But we have quite a few basins where it’s quite a bit more than that, so we’ll evaluate the volume of groundwater flow, and then we need to start looking at what are the areas of groundwater dependent ecosystems and what species are being affected. That’s where the work we’re doing now with TNC and with California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop these datasets that we can use to show what potentially are those systems or those groundwater dependent ecosystems and species that are being affected, so all those things will go into a ranking, which we’re still looking at.”
“I can imagine it will be how much groundwater per acre is being used in that basin, we’ll evaluate that, we’ll look at whether the basin is connected or not, we’ll look at how many acres of groundwater dependent ecosystems there are, we’ll look at the species and the fisheries to see if they’re being impacted, if there’s threatened or endangered species, and it will all get rolled up into a ranking from one to five, with five being it’s severely impacted and zero being not impacted at all. Those will all get added up and put into a statewide ranking system, and then it’s a relative ranking. We look at the distribution of all the data, and we split it out evenly to those categories of high, medium, low, or very low priority.”
“It’s not an easy task; the datasets they are what they are. I think one thing it will do is expose some of the data gaps we’re seeing in that data, and hopefully it will promote some additional funding to support that collection of data so that it’s available. The basin prioritization is scheduled to happen after each time we change the basin boundaries, so this isn’t the last time we’re going to do this. We anticipate potentially changing the basin boundaries or providing an opportunity to change in 2019 or 2020, so the basin prioritization will be evaluated then, because much of the prioritization is based on the area of the basin, so there will be further opportunities to look at prioritization in the future. We’re hoping that each iteration, the datasets we use will get better and better and we’ll have a cleaner prioritization then we do today.”
“The number of 127 may go up by the end of the year … ?“ said Jennifer Clary.
“We don’t see too many basins dropping down the lower. If you’re a medium or a high priority basin, you’re probably going to stay that way, but we do anticipate a number of low basins probably being kicked up to the additional criteria there. But it’s a little tough to judge, because at the same time, we’re updating populations, we’re going to update groundwater reliance, irrigated acres, we’re updating a number of those datasets based on approved data, so it’s going to be a little tough to predict what exactly is going to happen, but we do anticipate that some low basins are going to shoot up into medium basins, and then they will have two years to develop a GSA and five years to do their Groundwater Sustainability Plan after that point.”
“If it were up to me, there would be a couple of things that would shoot a basin to the high priority. One is if it has no water in the summertime, like the Scott River, which is a tributary to the Klamath, and some combination of a dry river and lack of existing data. In the case of the Scott River and other basins, we don’t necessarily know what contribution surface water extraction versus groundwater extraction have, so the sooner we can find that out, the better. And naming something high priority might do that. And we should also recognize the fact that impacts to surface water can happen, whether or not there is depletion overtime, so basins can recharge every winter but still have unknown impacts on surface water.”
“I just wanted to make a couple comments about the importance of the process at the local level with the CASGEM prioritization, because Dan mentioned there were quantitative criteria but then the discretionary criteria that is now going to be non-discretionary, and that’s still somewhat qualitative that has to do with the streamflow-aquifer interaction criteria. An example I can give is in Yuba County with the north Yuba subbasin in particular. For the CASGEM prioritization, during the initial go on that, we were rated as a low priority basin, but by the time the final prioritization came out, DWR had added another point, and it had to do specifically with surface water-groundwater interaction. We came back and asked questions at the time, but it wasn’t a very transparent process and we couldn’t get information documented as to what the decision was based on. In this case, even though it was just one point, it ended up kicking us from low to medium, so it has a lot of ramifications. It sounds like DWR is putting a lot of effort into including us in the process; I always advocate for transparency.”
“I think that’s something we’re shooting for. The thing to keep in mind is originally when the prioritization came out, it was for the CASGEM program. The CASGEM program is a groundwater level monitoring program, and the legislation indicated that the prioritization was to determine whether we should require additional monitoring for some basins based on the priority of those basins. Although I think the legislature started looking at those eight components and realized a lot of those really do still translate to groundwater management, but the implications of it became much greater for folks who are managing districts. Instead of just having to add some monitoring, all of a sudden they have to start implementing the SGMA legislation, so we’re taking it seriously. The data is going to be transparent and it’s going to be open. We’re trying to improve the quality of data because we know the stakes are much higher this time.”
“There are a lot of costs associated with implementing SGMA, we understand that, but there’s also a lot of benefit there, too. We are a little constrained with the eight components that we were given. We question how beneficial some of them are. One of the components is the total number of wells in the basin. There are a lot of monitoring wells that are not water production wells, so the question is should those really be included in that distribution because it skews it towards the urban areas where there is a lot groundwater cleanup sites and a lot of shallow monitoring wells, so in the future we may be looking at legislative tweaks so instead of saying look at the total number of wells, look at the number of supply wells for that basin. There are things we can do to improve it down the road and hopefully we can on a here-in basis to improve the way it’s being done.”
Jennifer Clary directs the next question to Sandi Matsumoto: “TNC has done a lot of work on those data gaps, so two questions, one, what kind of data gaps are there and two, how should we act in the presence of uncertainty?
“It’s interesting because even myself who has dedicated her career to conservation, I had not heard the term ‘groundwater dependent ecosystem’ until about a year and a half ago. This is how new this whole area is of what is an interconnected surface water. We created these things through the SGMA legislation and we are literally in the process with the science is being developed, and we are at the stage of defining even what these terms mean? It’s truly a new frontier.”
“We don’t even know how to classify groundwater dependent ecosystems. It’s such a broad range of things from the mountaintops all the way to the estuaries. It’s really an interesting and diverse term; it encompasses a lot of biodiversity … We have forests, we have the Sierra, we have volcanic systems, we have desert systems, we have the Central Valley, we have the coastal systems – those are states unto themselves and the diversity of what we’re trying to manage for is really intense, so in filling the data gaps, it is starting at the basics. How do you define these things? Where are they, can we map them, what are they comprised of, what does the literature tell us about their groundwater needs, are they dependent on groundwater depths of 0 to 3 feet, 3 to 10 feet, 10 to 20 feet, what are we talking about? Those are all kinds of questions we’re exploring. There are some other states and Australia who are ahead of us in trying to do these things so we are looking to those places to borrow methodologies and ways of looking at these questions.”
“The Nature Conservancy is working with closely with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to look at their databases. We’re basically taking a wholesale look at what data is out there, what is the best data, and trying to get that even centralized in one place, and then to apply that and be clear about what it tells us and what it doesn’t tell us because with every dataset there are certain benefits and certain limitations.”
“As the Department goes through this process, my hope is that there are a couple of considerations that are there, including the fact that some of the stuff that is out there may have a really small footprint, but it may be the only place where those ecosystems exist on earth. The great example of that is out in the Mojave Desert, we have the desert pupfish; so in some of the hottest, driest places on earth, you have these springs that just pop up and these crazy fish that have decided that it’s a good idea to live there. They exist nowhere else on earth, so we need to be considering things like that. Currently these are falling in low and very low basins.”
“Another consideration is where we are with the basin prioritization. We’re getting most of what we care about with these 127 basins; there are metrics that the Department has put out around covering 96% of the water use and 90-something percent of the population that’s dependent on groundwater. Those are all fabulous metrics, I love those, and what I’d love to see would be similar one for groundwater dependent ecosystems and interconnected surface waters, so that we’re covering the vast majority of those systems. Those are the kinds of ambitions and goals that we have, and I think it’s a new way of thinking about groundwater management.”
“Because there are data questions and uncertainties, we’ve been advocating for what we call the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is about acknowledging that data uncertainty exists, we have to deal with it, we have deadlines, and we need to set management objectives. If we’re working with limited data, those management objectives need to exist and need to be conservative. We don’t know, but that is not a reason to punt making a hard decision. We need to be thinking about being more conservative about how we manage the resource so that we’re not causing further harm, because SGMA is at its fundamental is about preventing harm; we can’t do that unless we’re conservative about the things about which we know very little. So if we can recognize and be clear about the data uncertainties and over time, address those data uncertainties – I think that has to come from academia, it has to come from NGOs, it has to come from the consulting world, from the local GSAs, from the state – all of us need to pull our weight on this, but as we do that and fill that knowledge and understand better how to manage, we also need to be conservative because we don’t know and we need to be honest that we don’t know.”
Audience member asks Dan McManus, “Figuring the connection in a closed system is one thing, but in the Central Valley where you have large systems with stored water that have a entirely different operational regime, how do you differentiate that in terms of trying to understand the implications of management in the groundwater agency versus regulation of the surface flows within that system?”
“That’s a real trick because the legislation specifically pertains to groundwater basins, and obviously much of the recharge coming to that basin comes from the watershed, so especially this affects our ability to look at climate change. We’re looking at climate change and how that’s going to affect each of the basins, but really it’s the runoff that’s going to be affected coming into the basins that’s probably going to have more of an impact then just some temperature changes occurring on the valley floor, so it is a challenge.”
“We are asking in the GSP regulations that people do consider a change in climate and we’re going to be providing some ranges from our modeling for each basin that will show the range of temperature and precipitation that we expect to be changing in those basins, but also we have a model of the Central Valley called the CV2Sim and we’re going to be doing some modeling to look at what are the effects of climate change on the runoff coming into the valley, so we’re hoping to be able to provide that information to locals so they have a feeling what they could see as far as runoff in the next 50 years.”
“Just as far as groundwater management goes, the Central Valley, for the most part, would probably be three basins, and some of those are connected. The SGMA statute does require that when people manage their basins that they do not interfere or adversely affect the ability of the next basin to do sustainable management, so we’ll be reviewing the plans in that regard to make sure that what people propose to do to their basin for management is not affecting the adjacent basins.”
“I think the key to the whole thing is getting people talking, getting the data transparent – a lot of the data is held in silos and is unavailable. We learned that from the water plan when we tried to analyze all the groundwater in California and we realized how poor the data quality was and just availability, so I think making the data available for folks and having some transparency and a lot of good communication.”
Jennifer asked all the panelists, what are the impacts not clearly monitoring groundwater contributions to surface water?
“Not monitoring has made it so that we don’t know the impacts, so I think it’s time to start knowing not just what’s coming off the surface water, but what is being extracted from the ground. Not monitoring has led to an unsustainable state, and we’re not really in a position to achieve the goals of SGMA based on current data gathering so I would just reiterate that the solution to this is the precautionary principle; first do no harm.”
“I would just add on that this problem of not doing monitoring – the effects really vary from place to place because in areas where the stream systems are highly connected, we can expect to see more impact. Keep in mind that hydrogeologists have long understood that water that is pumped from the ground really represents captured water that would have otherwise been discharged somewhere else at another time, and so in this case it’s for the locals to decide, is this what we want to do, is it best to pump the groundwater now or would it be more appropriate and beneficial to wait until its discharged where it is discharged to use it. It’s a function of location and time, but it’s something for local managers to decide.”
“I think there are three components to monitoring: groundwater monitoring, surface water monitoring, and ecological monitoring. We have made a decision as a state that we will have groundwater management … But we are finally in a place where we know we need to do something. Now we have these questions of how do we do it and when do we know we’re being affected, and we can’t answer those questions unless we have the monitoring and the data that tells us if you do x, the result will be y. I strongly believe it’s in everyone’s best interest to get the monitoring out there. It’s not about so and so is doing this and that person’s over extracting as much as it’s about this is a shared resource that all of us depend upon; we have to figure out how to manage that resource as the commons that it is, and we can’t do that unless we have the data to show us what the impacts we’re having are.”
“The only thing I would add to that is that having that information will allow you to be more strategic in how you manage the basin. We’ve heard a lot about the uncertainty right now with what the effects are, what the habitat is and those types of things, and so people are going to have to be more conservative and they are going to have to manage with this big broad marker versus pulling out their .25 pencil and whatever and strategically looking at where they can pump or can’t pump. I think ultimately as water resources become more and more critical, this data will really help folks dial in what is the location, what is the timing, all those things that are important to being able to limit the impacts to streamflow from pumping, so ultimately it will be better management.”
Audience question: I don’t see the effectiveness of local management, because I don’t know how local you mean by local, but also partly because unless local means the extent of the San Joaquin River, how are we getting local decisions benefitting an entire basin … ? We also have a system that says there are seven water basins in the entire state, so a basin is a basin is a basin. So where do we get this local control and how effective do you think that is? And how did we end up that being the scale at which we’re managing this?
“Under SGMA, the local implementation level would be at the groundwater sustainability agency level, and these agencies are now being formed throughout California. Your question really proves the point that it’s important that we get the word out first that these agencies are being formed but also how to best comply with SGMA with respect to making sure that all interested parties find out about the process and have a way to participate in the process.”
“As we developed the legislation, it was very important for the locals to have local control, and I think it’s kind of similar to how we do land use planning. The state is super-diverse, and so in some basins, the main issue that’s driving the decisions will be subsidence, and that’s a very different challenge than a coastal community that is dealing with sea water intrusion, and there are communities that have a lot of domestic wells with water quality problems, so those are all very different problems. So the local solutions need to be tailored to those problems.”
“I think what SGMA was trying to do was create the balance between the state is going to set some standards and require that these undesirable results don’t happen, so it’s sort of setting the bottom and saying don’t do these things … It comes down to local values, because there will be resource limitations and there will be tradeoffs and decisions to be made; which problem is more severe in our area and they are going to have to do that out in front of stakeholders and make some decisions about how we’re going to be prioritizing these actions.”
“From the standpoint of diversity across the state in terms of communities, agriculturally dominated, urban dominated, all of those types of things, recognizing that diversity and then also just respecting that the existing authorities around how decisions are made at the local level, I think those all contributed to where we ended up with SGMA … I think that’s where the stakeholder component becomes really important. Groundwater – it’s not sexy, no one’s talking about it at cocktail parties, no one thinks about it, because if you don’t see it, you don’t even really understand what it is; I don’t. But we need to get the word out that we will be making a lot of these decisions, they will be value driven and they will be driven at the local level and so that provides an opportunity for people in those communities to be weighing in.”
“There are 127 subbasins out there … It’s not about any one party really dominating the discussion in those places; it’s going to be about drawing in a whole bunch of new people to care about groundwater, because we have to. Over the course of the next five years as we develop these plans, we’re going to be making these value judgments and we have to activate people at the local level to have a voice for the things they care about.”
“There’s a quote that the Governor has that kind of underlines the whole intent of the legislation, and that is that groundwater is best managed locally. I think the caveat to that is it’s best managed locally if they do it. Clearly locals can react much quicker; they know their area, they can provide the strategies that are more precise and surgical to do the management that they need, but the legislation is also written in a way that it provides us, the state, with the responsibility of evaluating how those are doing on a regional scale so that we can see if they are being effective or they’re not.”
“That’s where the backstop comes in with the State Board, and we got to that because really that is the best way if it’s done properly is to manage it locally, but you still do need that regional evaluation and that’s what our Department will be doing is through the Water Plan and through other reports, we’ll be taking those annual reports that we get from the different groundwater sustainability agencies, and rolling them up regionally to look at what is the sustainability report card for the different areas … We’ll be doing some open evaluation and for those basins that aren’t managing sustainably, then they’ll go to the State Board and it will be a much more command-driven procedure, rather than looking at all the different aspects.”
“I think you need both. You need to provide the opportunity for the locals to do what’s needed at the local level, but also the state oversight is an important part, too.”
“That’s a good question and it focuses on one of the biggest problems of how local management has been designed in SGMA. I’ll give you a case study in our area: the Scott and Shasta River watersheds. In this case, the groundwater management entity will be essentially the fox guarding the hen house, whereas those communities, including the three largest tribes in California that depend upon flowing water from these tributaries, the fish from them, and the cultural resources from them, they are not considered locals. So we tried very hard when SGMA was being drafted to get at least tribes to be named as stakeholders on the entity, not just advisors – they will not have a voting seat on the groundwater issues that affects their livelihood and the fish they have been eating for 10,000 years.”
“We have a groundwater basin, we’re required to develop a plan, so what do we do?,” asks Jennifer McClary. “What basic steps should we be taking to measure the impact of groundwater pumping?”
“There are a lot of things to do; most of those get back to collecting the data that’s needed, but also to understanding initially what are the main drivers or concerns there. Do you have endangered species that could go extinct if you don’t do anything, or is there a longer period of time and an opportunity to evaluate and come up with a plan? Ideally we would know.”
“We would know where our production wells were located, and we don’t, for the most part. When you look at ways of identifying stream depletion, the number one thing is where are your wells located, how much are they producing, what is the construction of those wells, and then the other side of that is what is the streambed characteristics, what are the characteristics between those wells and the creek and how much of that capture that those wells are pumping comes from the creeks? For the most part, all that data is not there right now. So with the groundwater sustainability plan regulations, one of the things is to get people not to postpone taking action, but have them take action but also have them collecting some of those datasets, find out where your wells are, at least your high production wells within a half mile corridor of the watercourse, find out where those are, find out where your critical habitat is, find out what species of concern are being impacted, and then start taking steps to manage that in a way that can sustain both agricultural and urban interests along with the environment interests.”
“I would start off by saying that while I think that there probably areas where no one is paying attention, I don’t think it’s fair to say that no one’s paying attention. Many water managers have been looking at this since at least the 1990s.”
“I would say it’s certainly true that it’s very difficult to measure stream level interactions; those interactions can vary along the reach of the river, they can vary on the geographic scale, and there’s no way to quantify it at the state level or even at the level of the Central Valley, but we can do somethings and we have been doing somethings: we can evaluate the potential likelihood for water to flow in and out of stream .., comparing groundwater levels to river stage, it gives us at least and idea on the direction of flow is, whether it’s in or out of the stream, that tell us whether or not it’s a gaining or losing condition. We’ve been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to monitor and learn more about these interactions.”
“I’m more and more convinced we’re going to be turning to groundwater models to be able to find those answers, and even that brings its own set of problems we all have to be aware of, and that’s that there’s a lot of uncertainty in those models. We’re looking at the kind of models that are integrated groundwater-surface models like IWFM of MODFLOW; they are very useful models as long as you have the right amount of data and that they’re properly applied, but the problem comes at least from looking at stream-aquifer interaction in that the models that are calibrated to groundwater levels with monitoring wells might not be so well calibrated to flows between the stream and aquifer system. The big problem is that there’s very little measured data on stream-aquifer interaction to calibrate to, so while the model will show the fluxes, they are not well quantified as of yet.”
“I would wrap up by saying that we need to continue to do the kind of work we’re doing, but increased effort into first quantifying the uncertainty in what these estimates are showing and doing better, putting a better point on the estimates of the interaction between the stream and aquifer systems.”
“The Nature Conservancy did look at what was the groundwater pumping and the impact on streams in the Central Valley, and one of the findings of that report was that it can take decades for the full impact of a pumping event to hit a stream, so the complexity; then on top of that, we were in this drought, and so we’ve been pumping at rates that we have not seen ever. We know that there is an interconnection between those pumping actions and our surface flows, and it will take many years for that to fully impact the streams. So I think we just need to be real about that and understand that’s how complex this stuff is, that we don’t know the full ramifications of what we’ve done in the last couple years.”
“I do think there are other proxies. Groundwater models are fabulous, they are expensive, and they take a long time to develop, but there are other proxies that we can start looking at to understand the connection between how our managing water and the ecosystems in particular. We have some of our folks at The Nature Conservancy actually looking at readily available satellite imagery of vegetation. We’ve done this on the Santa Clara River in Ventura County; we’ve looked at vegetation and basically measured the greenness of the vegetation over time, and what we actually saw was those greenness were indicators of groundwater levels being at a good level; during the drought, one area that has historically always had really high groundwater levels has been overdrafted and has basically killed decades-old vegetation. So that’s one way.”
“There are things like stream gauges that we can be looking at, and overtime, what are the trends look like as far as the flows go. USGS has been promoting these super gauges. Super gauges are things that measure at the same place groundwater and the surface flows, and we need those in this state. I don’t think there any currently, but we need to have those.”
“The other thing to think about is that there are areas where there are stretches of dry riverbed currently, a lot in the Central Valley. If the extent of those spatially or temporally are extending, something’s not right. So that’s another thing we can be looking at; how much of the Cosumnes River is going dry every year, how long – 3 months? Is it extending? Those are all things we can be looking at as proxies in this area of uncertainty that can help us hone in on problems.”
“Collectively we focus a lot of gathering data, but we need to keep an eye on the prize, which is ultimately reaching sustainability. There are different levels of data collection, I think we’ve done a great job of collecting the data necessary to show that groundwater extraction is adversely impacting streamflows.”
“In my own backyard, in the Scott-Shasta with UC Davis and Kurok tribe, I’ve done modeling to show that even though the basin is not depleted over time, it is depleted every summer and does directly impact streamflows. The Nature Conservancy has done great studies across the state.”
“We know groundwater is impacting streamflows, but I would argue that we are not collecting the data necessarily to actually curtail groundwater use when the time comes to reach sustainability. Under SGMA, that’s 2025, but I would argue under public trust doctrine, that is today. So in order to actually reach sustainability, if you have to curtail to reach sustainability, that will require knowing who is taking how much groundwater, which we don’t know. There’s been a huge pushback just on data transparency on one level, so there’s one level of data transparency for groundwater and there’s a entirely different level for surface water. You can look at my water right for surface water and you have my name, my address, and how much I take. That does not exist for groundwater. It should.”
“We need to know who is taking how much. I’m open to other ideas, but so far there are two ways of doing that: one is metering each well; the other is satellite data where you can overlay what is being grown over how much area, with property ownership. I know of no other way to actually know who is taking how much. The second method assumes that there’s a certain level of efficiency, which you can assume if groundwater electricity rates aren’t too subsidized, then people will tend to not waste. So, we need to do one of those two things to actually reach sustainability and be able to curtail, and have that data be transparent enough that we can actually do something with it.”
Audience question: If SGMA doesn’t affect water rights, how we actually go about curtailing excessive use, once we do identify a problem?
“When SGMA was being written, there were a lot of people who said we need to create a water rights system with quantities of diversion, and there was a huge resistance to that. To some extent, surface water and groundwater are still treated separately under the law, but I think GSAs right now, under SGMA and under the public trust doctrine do have a mandate to figure it out. They’ve asked for local control, they’ve got it. So how are you going to comply with the public trust doctrine and SGMA?”
“You need one of those two methods to know who is taking too much and then you need to start curtailing based on however the locals decide. With surface water, it’s based on seniority, which is unfair but that’s the law we have. With groundwater, the locals need to figure out who gets curtailed and my how much. I think there are much more fair ways to curtail than seniority, I think a flat percentage across the board, something like that … “
Jennifer Clary asked, when you’re talking about instream flow requirements, we are talking about a complex layer of regulations and water rights, and DWR in fact is new to this game. The Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Board already have the ability to set instream flow requirements, and now we’re adding another layer in SGMA, so what is DWR’s unique role in overlaying those existing requirements?
“It has been a challenge because groundwater management from the state’s perspective, has been a long time in coming. A lot of people want to take SGMA and have it be a catch-all for everything. It has some statements of water quality, so should we be setting new water quality regulations under SGMA? It has surface-groundwater interaction, should we be setting instream flow requirements under SGMA? I think our job is to step back and realize that our authority at the Department is to develop regulations to evaluate groundwater sustainability plans and identifying whether they have the ability to reach their sustainability goal in 20 years and throughout.”
“Those instream flow requirements really need to be left to CDFW and the State Board to evaluate, but the one thing we can do with SGMA is make sure that the locals are collecting, managing, and reporting the data that will help facilitate some of those instream flow evaluations and analysis. Clearly some of that data is lacking, and that has been part of the reason at least for identifying instream flow requirements for a lot of these creeks, but the GSAs are really going to be required to identify what are the significant and unreasonable adverse impacts to the beneficial uses of surface water and they need to know what are the required flows and timing of those flows in the creek. I think we definitely need to understand that. SGMA is not going to do that by itself; it’s going to be helping to do that.”
“I would emphasize that it will be the locals who will be having to work to establish the minimum thresholds that they would be using for their groundwater sustainability plans to set criteria that could limit stream-aquifer interaction, but DWR would still have their role at the end of the game when the groundwater sustainability plans are completed. They have the responsibility to evaluate the plans and make sure that they would result in sustainable conditions in the basin, so I think you’d still have quite a bit of ability to weigh in on the process. It sounds like maybe a little bit more on the backend.”
“I do think we need a uniform method of determining how much water our rivers need. There are about seven laws on the books that say rivers need water, and three different agencies, 2 state, whose job it is to determine that, but they still have not settled on those things. I’ve organized a meeting about that, and we’re trying to pull them all together so at least the Water Board and CDFW can agree on a scientific methodology and a way of deciding how much water rivers need. They won’t put their foot down.”
“There is local control and this idea of that we’re avoiding unreasonable results, which are called significant and unreasonable impacts,” said Jennifer Clary. “The idea is that they are locally controlled, so you can have a negative impact, so you can be overdrafting groundwater, as long as you don’t reach a level that the locals determine is significant and unreasonable. At the same time, the Department of Water Resources is developing regulations to evaluate whether they agree with locals that that is the right number, so in terms of this issue, groundwater dependent ecosystems or interconnected surface water, what criteria could we use for deciding, could locals use, could DWR use, for deciding what is significant and unreasonable, both in ecologically sound and socially equitable manner?
“I go back to the precautionary principle. We do have data uncertainty here. Talking to anyone about what the managers are most freaked out about, it’s that we don’t know where there are interconnected waters and what the impacts are of groundwater on those surface waters. So knowing and acknowledging that, we need to be careful and we need to be conservative, so I think that’s the starting point.”
“The other starting point here is what I mentioned earlier, we’ve destroyed 95% of our wetlands and riparian habitat in this state. That is not good, and that is the context in which we’re working. That number has arguably fallen with the impacts of the drought, so when people say, ‘we can’t have the river driving our decisions in our local area,’ that is less than 5% of what used to be in this state. So in the context of what we’ve done as we’ve developed and become the amazing economy that we are, we’ve made decisions, and it has resulted in very little of things being left and so that context has to come into this discussion. It’s just understanding that the few resources that we have out there are precious.”
“What we’re seeing with these groundwater dependent ecosystems is they raise some really tough questions. I’m not here to say that we have to protect every single one of them in every single place; I think the question needs to be asked. There are weird situations where there are a lot of that is out there is dependent upon things that are no longer natural. Most of our rivers are regulated; those are not natural flows. A lot of what exists in the valley and in other places along rivers, there is a wastewater treatment plant upstream, and that flow in the river is actually treated wastewater, so is that natural flow? We have perched aquifers that are being supported by ag runoff, so these are all really hard questions. I don’t claim to have the answer to this.”
“When we think about significant and unreasonable, we know that these things, however weird they are, however strange the management implications are, they are a very small subset of what used to be. What we have left is very precious, and if we don’t know how to deal with these things, then we need to be cautious and conservative about taking actions that affect these things.”
“’Significant and unreasonable’ is an interesting set of criteria. The example that I think of is sea water intrusion. What is significant and unreasonable? The farmer whose land along the coast is being impacted by sea water intrusion is going to argue that any seawater intrusion is that. With sea level rise and knowing that sea water will be coming up and taking over some of the land that is coastal, that’s a question, and defining that significant and unreasonable probably over time we’ll have to adjust. There are a lot of challenges related to this abstract notion of significant and unreasonable, but it’s also reflective of the fact that we do not know what is going to happen a few years from now. These sustainability plans should be about what’s happening 50 years from now, so we need to be making decisions educated based on what we know today, and again have the monitoring to be testing whether the hypothesis that we have today about what we should do to manage the resource is correct, and whether we’re having the intended impact.”
“As a water manager, I would say we really have to take the holistic view of things. Groundwater pumping by itself is not the boogeyman here. It provides benefits to many people, ready access to water for cities and to agriculture, a buffer to drought which we saw that during the recent dry periods, and jobs and increased revenues to some of the most economically-disadvantaged areas in California through agricultural development. But it comes with potential costs to certain surface water users including water rights holders, and ecosystems that are dependent on groundwater in the ground, so what it really comes down to is as a practical matter, at the local level. We’re going to have to look at all of the impacts: what’s important to this stakeholder group, what’s important to that stakeholder group, and gather them together and make a commitment to reach out to all of the stakeholders, find out what they think is unreasonable so that we can pull all of those together and evaluate it in total. There’s not going to be this just magic definition from folks coming down from on high that tells us whether something is unreasonable or not.”
“It brings up the good point that keeping with the intent of the legislation, the draft regulations are written in a way that locals do have to identify what is significant, and unreasonable. Groundwater is just one side of the story of stream depletion – it’s the diversions also, so by having folks understand what are the diversions versus the pumping and where exactly are those impacts coming from, it will be helpful, but also providing them some information to help guide them in understanding what may become significant and unreasonable for their basin.”
“Working with The Nature Conservancy, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and our environmental scientists, we’re trying to develop maps showing where these groundwater dependent ecosystems are and where we feel like there are species of concern in these streams, so that when they are deciding what’s significant and unreasonable, they have some baseline information to go from to look at and evaluate.”
“There is a section of the regulations, subarticle 3 under article 5, that says sustainable management criteria. That was a little bit confusing for folks in the draft, we had a lot of comments about improving the clarity, but the intent there was really that the locals have to identify this minimum threshold below which the impacts are going to be significant and unreasonable, but then they also have to identify this management objective, which is somewhere above that minimum threshold that they are going to operate at. You don’t want to operate at the thin line above the minimum threshold, but the distance between that minimum threshold and where they fit their management objective has to be related to the uncertainty that they have in the data for that basin. If they say that they don’t have very much information, then they should be operating above, at higher level than really what has become significant and unreasonable until they do know. Hopefully the edits that were made into the draft will clarify that concept a little bit so people understand that uncertainty is part of the regulations.”
“We know that we don’t have the information, but we also know that we can’t wait for all the information. That was one of the issues we saw with groundwater management for many years is that people just kept collecting data and collecting data; we collected all this data but it raises other questions. We have to answer that question first, and really at some point you have to dive in and start with the management, and I think that’s where having a knowledge of the uncertainty would help.”
“I’m one of the biggest fans of the precautionary principle, and to me in reality that would mean local entities do not give away more groundwater until we know it’s available, but that’s not what’s happening. Uncertainty about the correlative impact of surface water extraction versus groundwater is a problem, as well as the impact of groundwater extraction on surface water, so uncertainty has led to a continuation of the status quo and one might argue, increased groundwater extractions since the passage of SGMA since people are in a race to drill.”
“The law is supposed to prevent significant and unreasonable impact of beneficial uses of surface water; I would argue that existing law determines what beneficial use of surface water is and it’s not necessarily up to the locals. SGMA, I believe, because of the language in it, ties itself to water code section 1243 which says, recreation and fish and wildlife are a beneficial use of surface water, and so I think SGMA is tied to that and triggers that.”
“Independently of SGMA we have the public trust doctrine. There has been a court case that says groundwater extraction that adversely impacts surface water, if it leads to a navigable waterway which effectively is any waterway that goes to a large river, local entities will be bound by the public trust doctrine, so that’s an entirely different standard that hasn’t been fully quantified, so those three laws are definitely tied to groundwater. Then we have a entirely different host of laws that regulate surface water, so should these local entities observe the endangered species act, for example, even though it’s not explicitly tied to SGMA? I believe the local entities have a predetermined responsibility to comply with several laws, not just the letter of SGMA.”
Audience question: I actually did not appreciate the extent to which SGMA actually did recognize the interactions between surface waters and groundwater, and so that’s reassuring to me. On the other hand, it certainly does not go as far as something we all aspire to in this state and recognize the value of, which is conjunctive use which is the far more proactive integrated management of surface water and groundwater resources, and so I actually wanted to flip the conversation and see what all of you folks though about whether or not SGMA applies, or whether this is something we need to deal with again on the sort of wetter side of equation …
“There was an attempt by some members of the ag community during the drafting of SGMA to pass a law that would have made groundwater recharge a beneficial use of surface water. To me that’s incredibly scary because the state’s unappropriated surface water has a benefit for the public by not being appropriated but still appropriatable. We all benefit from it for many reasons, but now through regulation, the Water Board has approved a plan in the Scott River watershed to capture high winter flows to recharge groundwater. I’m not necessarily against that, but it should be also done in conjunction with some other form of curtailment, and we need high river flows to scour rivers, so it just feels like another step down the road of increasing water consumption when we really need to decrease consumption, so that’s also when I think of conjunctive use, and it’s a slippery slope.”
“SGMA doesn’t really address that very well, but one of the things I think back to is clearly there are a lot of benefits of those flood flows on the reworking of the channel and providing those gravels and distributions and flooding the floodplain which is supposed to get flooded occasionally, but one of the studies we did in the Sacramento River with the National Heritage Foundation who worked with the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District to look at the Sacramento River flows; they looked at all these environmental benefits associated with the exact flow amounts – what does it take to have that overflow for the floodplain and how often does that have to happen, what does it take to, instead of just cutting the flow for diversions come April 1st, what if you ramped that down so the cottonwoods don’t get their root zone completely dewatered, so they did this fairly complicated study.
They did come up with a protocol to where you could do both, at certain times, you did have those flood flows which would be very appropriate for using to recharge groundwater system, because they’ve already have had the benefit within the channel of reworking the channel or providing those floodwater benefits, so I think there is an opportunity to do both, but it’s going to require modeling, a lot of data, a lot of information, and knowledge about the waterway and the system. What are the benefits associated with some of these environmental flows, and what is the timing needed versus just diverting every peak flow for groundwater recharge.”
“In terms of regarding water management and the benefits and the interactions with SGMA, it’s definitely a tool that can help, but conjunctive water management requires a ready source of surface water and groundwater, and to be able to manage those together. It sounds really good in concept and it is really good in practice if you can make it happen. It so happens in Yuba County, we have one agency that is managing both the surface water and the groundwater, and we practice in-leiu recharge. In wet years, our agriculture is almost 100% on surface water, our cities and towns are on groundwater all the time, during the dry times. If there is additional water available that is needed in other areas of other parts of the state, we practice groundwater substitution transfers where some of our farmers will pump groundwater and forego their surface water so that surface water can be transferred to other areas.”
“In some years, like this year, we were getting pretty good recharge but our groundwater levels are still down. It seems like it makes more sense for us to keep the groundwater in our groundwater basin as an additional buffer to drought. That’s one of the other criteria we have to look at, what we’ll supply first, and make sure that the locals in terms of agricultural, urban, and our environmental resources are sufficiently supplied before we look at transferring any water away.”
To wrap it up, Jennifer Clary then asked each panelist to give one policy or legislative or local decision that could be taken that could help local implementation of SGMA and specifically assessing surface water and groundwater interaction.
“We should adopt laws and policies such that we don’t increase extraction unless and until we know it’s actually available and available in a way that does not have an adverse impact on those who depend on rivers, so that’s back to the precautionary principle. I hope that progressive groundwater agencies will be proactive and go above and beyond SGMA to actually comply with the precautionary principle.”
“I agree. I think for me, precautionary principle and sustainability, again sustainability being about managing for current and future generations, communities, economy, and the environment.”
“I would definitely support the idea of having additional requirements for well drilling applications. I’m not so far as putting a moratorium; obviously those critically overdrafted basins need to meet those moratoriums, but even as we move forward and we end up being sustainable, there really should be some information that you need to provide before you’re able to put in a 5000 gallon per minute well and pump, making sure that supply is there, during both dry years and wet years. Also we look at the datasets we are working with in California, and we really are behind some of the states, so providing the funding that’s needed, not only the state organizations, to have these databases available to the locals, but also for the universities and the local managers, that data would be collected and made available, I think is critical, and some sort of data system that is able to share all that information would be great.”
“I’ll just say Amen to that because I think that’s really critical, but I was going to suggest that as water managers, we often say that we can’t manage what we don’t measure, so for me, the first thing that we should be doing is setting the standards for the kind of monitoring to be done. This would probably have to come with guidance from the state, even though I’m more for local control on this, but not everybody knows what the best way to set up a monitoring program is, so we need some guidelines for how to set up those monitoring programs. We also have to recognize it costs big bucks, so it behooves the state set aside money for locals to establish those networks. But even given that, it really is important for policy makers and groundwater managers to keep in mind that it takes a lot of time to install these networks, but also to gather enough data over enough years under enough hydrologic conditions, so you gain data that will allow you to better understand the system. So we’ve got to start now, if we want to get to where we’ve all been talking about today.”