DR. JEFF MOUNT: Making groundwater a centerpiece of managing the droughts of the future

Four essential policy reforms are needed to reduce the social, economic, and environmental costs of future droughts, says Dr. Mount

California’s climate is changing. Hotter temperatures, a shrinking snowpack, shorter and more intense wet seasons, rising sea level, and more volatile precipitation—with wetter wet years and drier dry years—are stressing the state’s water management system. Recent climate projections indicate that the pace of change will increase. To avoid unwanted social, economic, and environmental consequences, the water system will need to adapt to greater climate extremes and growing water scarcity.

Dr.Jeff Mount is senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, Water Policy Center. At the Western Groundwater Congress, hosted by Groundwater Resources Association of California, he argued that managing groundwater resources sustainably is the most important climate adaptation measure that the state can implement, and discussed four essential reforms are needed to reduce the social, economic, and environmental costs of future droughts.

Dr. Mount began by saying that his talk would not be a technical talk but a policy talk intended to generate a conversation.  “I remind you all, we are coming to the end of the fourth edition of Jerry Brown, four terms as governor,” he said.  “There is no governor in my lifetime more involved in water than Jerry Brown.  You may hate the stuff he does, you may love the stuff he does, but you cannot say he has not paid attention to water.  Now we have two candidates for governor; neither of them have spoke very much about water, and it’s not clear what they think or who they support.”

Dr. Mount said that if he had a chance to sit down with the next governor, he would tell him that water is the most sensitive indicator of climate change.  Water integrates both precipitation and temperature, so the effects are going to show up there first, and we’re already start to see that, he said.

Every now and then we get a big flood that shows us the weaknesses in our flood management systems, but nothing beats drought for showing us the weaknesses in our water management system in general, he said.  “But if I were in front of the governor, the first thing I would say to the governor is that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, whether by design, or accident, is probably the single most important climate adaptation measure to come out of the Brown Administration (other than the greenhouse gas emissions side), and making it work should be the top priority for your administration.”

Dr. Mount said he would be drawing on the recent PPIC report, Managing Drought in a Changing Climate, which focuses on adaptation to future droughts, and he would be highlighting the report recommendations that directly address the issue of making SGMA work.

Groundwater is extremely important because it is our drought reserve, although we tend to forget that, he said. In an average year, roughly 30% of applied water in the state is groundwater, but during droughts, it can creep up to almost 60% of the supply.  Three years into the drought, surface storage is exhausted, and it is the ability to pump groundwater which is so important, particularly for agriculture in California.

But while it is our drought reserve, it’s our very behavior during those droughts which really exacerbates our sustainability problems.  “It is excessive pumping during that period and lack of preparation before which is making the essence of our problem,” said Dr. Mount.

In places like the San Joaquin Valley, we have a structural deficit on the order of 2 MAF,” he said.  “I get 1.86 but it depends on which time frame you look at, but since 1987, we’ve got this 1.85 MAF per year structural deficit and that structural deficit is because we hammer aquifers so hard during drought.  So it’s worthwhile to pay attention to drought and groundwater within it.”

About 30 authors worked on the PPIC report.  They modeled what the droughts of the future would look like.  Rather than look at the year 2100, they instead focused on mid-century.  “By 2040, you have to have sustainable groundwater management in California; that’s in statute now,” Dr. Mount said.  “What we should be thinking about is that period of time roughly 2040 to 2050, because if we think about that period of time, we can embed that into our thinking and our sustainable groundwater management plans.”

Five climate pressures that will impact groundwater management

They looked at the changes that might occur between now and mid-century, did an extensive amount of modeling, and determined which climate change pressures are most likely to be significant for managing of water, and in particular managing groundwater.  They came up with five climate pressures: Warming temperatures, shrinking snowpack, shorter wet seasons, more volatile precipitation, and rising seas.

During the last drought, the state experienced extraordinarily high temperatures which dramatically amplified the effect of drought.  “Those of you who work in the Colorado River system know that temperature is playing a huge role in the decline and total yield,” he said.  “Now there’s new research emerging that suggests that as much as 25% of the decline in yield is just from temperature alone, not even due to changes in precipitation.”

Their modeling predicted that droughts such as the one California experienced from 2011 to 2017 will become much more common, and by the time sustainability is achieved in 2040, that will be the average drought.  There will also be increases in extreme heat days and increases in temperature, not just during the summer but most particularly during the winter.  With winter playing an important role, hot droughts are the norm, Dr. Mount said.

He presented a slide showing precipitation and temperature since 1950, noting that 1950 was chosen specifically the data is very good after that date.  He pointed out the increasing temperature trends, noting that temperature affects many things, such as evaporative losses, soil moisture deficits, and irrigation demands, both agricultural and urban.

Temperature also plays an important role in surface water quality.  “It isn’t just the temperature side of it, but also harmful algal blooms,” Dr. Mount said.  “We’re starting to see a variety of things hit surface water quality and when surface water quality goes down, the demand for groundwater goes up.  Then there is the increasing pressure that goes to delivering water to wetland areas, due to high evaporation rates, and also dealing with cold water conditions in reservoirs.”

As an example, Dr. Mount said that in the Yuba Accord, during the hot periods when they have to keep water in the river, the farmers switch to groundwater, so that puts more pressure on the groundwater basin so they can leave the water in the river in order to maintain temperatures.

Snowpack is shrinking.  “We’re seeing that snow drought is increasing, the probability of snow drought is increasing, and our droughts are just going to be characterized by a dearth of snow,” he said.  “This is a solid trend that we’re seeing, back from 1950 up to the present, we’re continuously seeing the percentage of precipitation that falls as rain versus the percentage that falls as snow is directly changing.”

The shrinking snowpack has an array of effects on groundwater.  One is the shallow montane groundwater systems are the most directly affected by that loss of recharge by the slow melting of the snow.  He pointed out that the total water budget has changed and the timing of runoff has changed, so that will affect the water available for conjunctive use and recharge.

Water quality is a big issue, particularly when it comes to reservoir temperature.  “You all saw what happened at Shasta Reservoir during the drought,” said Dr. Mount.  “What happened during that period of time was the inability to fully understand what happens when things warm up in the headwaters, and you have a warmer reservoir in the winter, and when you try to carry over and manage cold water in the spring, you really struggle.  All of that puts pressure on groundwater, because when they cut back flows out of Shasta to basically reserve the cold water pool, people switched to groundwater.”

One overlooked part of climate change is the issue of seasonality, which gets dramatic later in the century.  “What that means is the increasing contrast between seasons,” he said.  “What we have seen in the last ten years is that winter is becoming much more concentrated into a narrow window.  It’s Christmas to late February.  We really are concentrating our precipitation into a narrower and narrower window, and our springs and falls are getting drier and longer.”

This is an important change because it will directly affect groundwater.  “Because of that change in precipitation, there’s greater irrigation demand,” he said.  “We now have a longer growing season, so there’s demand late season.  There are places like the Scott River that are now getting three alfalfa crops in the year, and some even talk about the possibility of four.  So there’s a greater irrigation demand associated with that.  It also means you have less opportunity for managed recharge.”

It will also have a big impact on wetlands, increasing the demand for spring and fall wetland and river ecosystem water.  The reduced spring inflow into reservoirs will affect temperature as it is the snowmelt flowing into reservoir that is a major driver on the temperature of the reservoir, he said.

This change is a big deal,” he said.  “This is the South Coast Palmer Drought Severity Index (lower, left), which is showing up in spades in Southern California.  There’s a line somewhere, certainly south of the Tehachapis where we have now switched our climate in Southern California.  It’s a southwest climate now in Southern California and much less a California-style climate.”

More volatile precipitation patterns are projected and big variations between years with more pronounced extreme wet events and increased frequency of extreme drought (above right).  The term ‘precipitation whiplash’ refers to events such as California going through the warmest driest drought on record from 2012 to 2016, then in 2017, precipitation records were set in major parts of California, and then right back into dry again in 2018.

This volatile precipitation forms a really fundamental challenge, especially for you folks who are trying to do managed aquifer recharge using floods, because of this unpredictability,” Dr. Mount said.  “When you make investments in infrastructure to try and do this, you may not be able to use it very often.”

There will be increased pressure to make more space behind reservoirs for floods, he pointed out, and so there will be more years where you will not fill that reservoir, and there will be greater pressure to start doing conjunctive use projects.

There will also be big pressure on the floodplains.  “There can be many benefits for managing these floods well, but at the same time, there’s an opportunity here because increased carryover storage which is moved through a conjunctive use program into an aquifer benefits everybody.  There are broad benefits associated with that.”

Sea level rise will affect more than South Coast and Central Coast aquifers; that is a manageable problem as it just increases the salinity pressure.  However, sea level rise will affect the Delta, although it’s not clear what the impacts will be.  “We do know that it will mean increased pressure on salinity in the Delta, and if there’s increased pressure on salinity, that means you have to allocate much more of your reservoirs upstream to keep it fresh enough so you can use it,” Dr. Mount said.

We just published something this last year where we tore apart the history of outflow in the Delta, and for whatever reason, we’re using almost half a million acre-feet more water now then we were in the early 90s and late 80s to keep the Delta fresh,” he said.  “We don’t know why that is, I don’t think it’s because of sea level rise, it’s other things … that’s a huge number, that’s more yield than any of the new reservoirs we’re talking about.”

He acknowledged it is an extraordinary challenge to incorporate all of this into GSP planning.

The need to establish a “grid”

Since the PPIC published the book, Managing California’s Water, they have been pushing to start rethinking how we manage water.  “’All politics and all water is local’ is what people say, but it’s not,” Dr. Mount said.  “Politics is not all local, and water for sure is not local, and so we have been pushing this notion to manage these larger problems as an actual grid.  It’s analogous to the electrical grid, but it is not the same because these are water molecules, not electrons, and there are real differences between them.  Our grid is the connected network of 1400 dams and surface reservoirs, thousands of miles of rivers and canals and rivers that act like canals and aqueducts within California, and this immense potential storage in groundwater.”

There is 100 MAF of potential storage in just the San Joaquin Valley alone, because that much water has been pumped from those basins.   “The actions that are taken, whether it’s on supply management or demand management actually reverberate throughout the system,” he said.   “San Diego is at the bottom of this grid, so they are gathering water from incredibly long distances and what happens up and down this system, including the ‘battery’ which is groundwater, reverberates throughout the system.  It drives the price of water, it drives availability of water, it drives environmental solutions to water, so it’s extremely important to start thinking about it as a grid.”

Dr. Mount said the implementation of SGMA will require a grid.  In a talk he gave earlier this spring, he noted the 2 MAF structural deficit in the San Joaquin basin and said that at most, a  quarter to maybe a third of that deficit can be made up by supply augmentation, and the rest is demand management.  “Demand management is most effective and it’s social and economic costs are so much lower when you operate it within a grid,” he said.  “This allows trading, this allows banking – there are a variety of activities that can reduce those impacts, so we think the solution to groundwater sustainability should be to start thinking about this as a grid.”

Four essential reforms

SGMA cannot be solved in a vacuum and so there is a portfolio of reforms that are needed to make implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act successful; Dr. Mount grouped them into four categories:  Plan ahead, upgrade the water grid, upgrade the way water is allocated it (the rules that govern it), and find the money.

He then discussed each of the reform categories in turn.

1.  Plan ahead

Looking back on the many publications the PPIC has published on the drought and the response of agriculture, urban, and the government to drought, one thing that they’ve learned is that planning matters.

It was Eisenhower who said ‘plans are nothing, planning is everything’,” he said.  “It is the going through the planning process that makes such a difference and where that was done in earnest, you dramatically reduced the impacts of drought.”

It is in the state’s interest to have very strong, well coordinated, integrated basin-scale sustainable groundwater plans, which is going to be challenging in places like the San Joaquin Valley where there are 121 GSAs managing 15 basins, he said.  The governance and the social aspects are going to be pretty complicated.

It is in the interest of everyone working in groundwater that you have strong urban water management plans,” he continued.  “LA always gets its water one way or another.  The urban areas that generate 98% of the GDP of California, are going to get their water somehow, so it is useful as part of this grid to be thinking about making sure that these plans are robust.  And it turns out, most of them are.  San Francisco,  the South Coast, and much of the Sacramento area did very well during the drought.   Most of those urban plans were pretty good, but they are not robust-enough to handle the strength of future droughts.”

With roughly 15 basins in the San Joaquin area and 121 GSAs, there needs to be regional agricultural water management plans.  “Somehow you have to start aggregating these on a regional basis so that you can reduce the impacts,” he said.  “That means the ability to start trading water and banking; and banking is successful where you can bank really far away from where you are.  That’s going to be extremely important.”

Rural communities need to be considered; the impacts of agricultural chemicals and then agricultural water extraction had a huge impact on these poor, rural communities.  “The right to clean drinking water is important,” he said.  “So strengthen those plans.  Even though there’s been a lot of work on this, they are not yet good.”

The part that didn’t work well during the last drought was managing ecosystems.  Basically government responded to drought on the ecosystem side, rather than planning for it, he said.  “Government does not plan for droughts on the ecosystem side; they set minimum instream flows which of course are overturned or ignored … as it turns out, a very small number of streams in California actually have instream flow standards on them, but the vast majority have none.  Ecosystem drought plans are extremely important so that you have to have ecosystem representatives at the table with people so plans are important.”

2. Update the grid

The water grid needs to be upgraded for the 21st century, recognizing 21st century challenges.  “It is essential when you are dealing with a finite resource and you’re going to have to make some tough decisions on the demand management side, that grid softens the blow,” Dr. Mount said.

We knew there are problems in the grid, that it was aging – most of the dams in California are more than 150 years old and most of the water infrastructure has exceeded its life expectancy so we have to expect that there will be problems, he said. It just happened to be Oroville in 2017, but there are at least 90 large structures in California are likely to need substantial upgrade just so they can operate at their designed capacity.

Fixing our storage is extremely important, but if you asked me, what should be the highest priority, that is to both repair and expand our conveyance capacity within the grid,” he said.  “We need a grid where you can actually go ahead and move water.  There are wonderful recharge opportunities going on in the Tulare Basin where infiltration isn’t measured in inches but in feet daily.  There is incredible capacity for recharge there, and there’s no water, so that’s a fundamental problem.  And the Friant-Kern Canal is broken because of subsidence, so it’s down to 1/3rd of its capacity, so these are the things that are likely to make the biggest difference because they will spur on the markets and the trading that are likely to work.”

The PPIC report even suggests that the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project should be combined into a regulated utility, he said.

3.  Update water allocation rules

Capture precipitation and get it into the ground, so water allocation rules need to be changed so that they promote capture during the wet periods and there is fair allocation during the dry periods.

The State Water Resources Control Board is making it very difficult for you to recharge groundwater,” Dr. Mount said.  “They are doing it with good reason, and that is, you don’t want to use bad water to recharge groundwater, but they could make it so much easier.  We have a list of ideas for how you would change the current regulations or the application of the current regulations to promote groundwater recharge.  This is going to be extremely important, especially for the San Joaquin Valley.”

Water trading and banking need to be streamlined.  “As the San Joaquin Valley works to get rid of the 1.5 MAF structural deficit per year average annual use, you could just let it happen and farmers go out of business because it’s just getting too expensive, or you can do it in a managed way where you have extensive trading and banking that’s associated with it,” he said.  “We’ll publish a report in December or January that will show dramatic differences in reducing the cost of it so much so, the argument would be as a percentage of GDP of the valley, it’s a small hit.  Even when you have fully implemented the SGMA.  If you don’t do this, it’s a big hit, it’s a lot of chaos with social and economic disruptions, so the idea is by really pushing markets and banking and trading, you can soften the blow.  The state has to step in on that.  They have to make it easier.  This may be a place where legislation has to come up to push that along, it’s extremely important.

The third recommendation is the concept to shift away from using minimum instream flow standards as an approach to environmental water management to a much more flexible approach where a block of water is allocated to the environment and it is managed like a water right.

This includes trading and banking and storing, which can’t do any of that with environmental water right now,” he said.  “The concept is you hand the environment a budget.  You tell environmental community, you tell the farmers, the people who collaborate together that the environment is now sitting at the table as an equal partner with a share of water and is willing to be flexible in this management.  We think this approach could work, we also think it works within the given law, but there will be many people who disagree with it.”

The administration of water rights needs to be improved.  During the drought, there was a meat cleaver approach to curtailing water rights, which was due to a lack of data, lack of good data, and a system that is rather cumbersome.  “So we think a part of managing this grid and this trading and banking, we need modest changes in the water rights administration.”

4.  Find the money

Finally, nothing happens without money.  It’s a common myth about California water, but for some reason, but Californians tend to think that general obligation bonds are what covers the cost of water.  “That is wrong,” said Dr. Mount.  “85% of the 30 billion dollars a year we spend on water in California comes from ratepayers, so it is ratepayers who are paying for water supply and treatment.  That’s where 85% of the money goes.  The state puts in about 4% and people think of the federal government is a tiny little bit.”

Another myth is that this money is equally distributed.  There are numerous ‘fiscal orphans’ such as flood management; right now there is no way to manage floods with typical ratepayer revenues, except for the handful of flood districts that have actually worked that out, he said.   There is no reliable supply of money for aquatic ecosystems and so we limp along from bond to bond; stormwater management still does not have a way to pay for it, as it’s extremely difficult to do it due to Prop 218 which basically limits the ability of districts to collect money, he said.

We spend a billion dollars a just servicing the bonds and that’s likely to go up a lot,” he said.  “So we have to get our head around this fiscal orphan problem to make this grid work well.”

The PPIC suggests that we make sure that general obligation bonds are for public benefit.  “A lot of times, general obligation bonds are being used for things that ratepayers could pay for and should pay for, that is the only way you’re going to get fiscal balance in this system is that we somehow need to get ratepayers much more involved in it,” he said.  “We have a range of ideas of what to do with the $2 to 3 billion dollar per year gap in fiscal orphans, which are principally ecosystems, stormwater, and flood control in particular.”

Dr. Mount noted how there are problems with the tax base that make it difficult, such as Prop 13 and the fixes taxes based on the year you buy your house, and Prop 218 which forbids local government to collect monies from property owners who don’t directly benefit.  “So for example, if you decide you’re going to do a conjunctive use program and you want to pay for it with fees, you have to be able to prove that aggregation of water creates direct benefit for the persons you’re collecting the fee from,” he said.  “This is just not working well, so this is a place where legislative reform is probably needed for Prop 218 – except that it’s in our constitution and it’s extremely difficult for the legislature to overturn it without a super majority.  We need a way to reform these water pricing laws for us to get at it.

Reasons for optimism

Dr. Mount said that in spite of all of this, he is optimistic.  The 2012-2016 was the worst in the history of California if you look at the temperature in particular and it had zero impact on the economy of California – the economy of California actually accelerated during that drought.  “Of course that’s overall economic recovery from the recession but the fact is the urban sector, the main engine of our economy, has been adapting very well.  Urban has been investing in groundwater, so continuing that trend is absolutely necessary for adaptation in the future.

Agriculture, the big user of water in this system and the biggest user of groundwater by a long shot, also has been doing a lot of innovation, and on top of that is SGMA.  “This is where we really are going to see some dramatic changes, and I’m actually quite optimistic on rural drinking water supplies … a lot of progress is underway and a lot of earnest people are putting out energy although the recent bill didn’t pass; there’s money, there’s intent, there’s goodwill and I’m actually quite optimistic we’re going to get that worked out.”

But there’s tough work ahead, said Dr. Mount.  He is less optimistic on the environmental side because we still haven’t come up with an alternative to the traditional approach of setting minimum instream flow standards and hoping everything else works out.  “We haven’t arrested the decline of species.  We’ve probably prevented some extinctions, but that’s not what we’re really after; we’re after a broader ecosystem benefits.  We need a new approach to environmental management, especially as things are warming up and droughts are becoming more intense.”

In a PPIC paper published last year, Dr. Mount said they argued that droughts are the biological bottleneck in this system.  “Even though native species are well adapted to drought, they are not well adapted to this system as we have changed it and droughts are a real major problem,” he said.

We need to improve water rights administration, and we’re just going to have to make some tough decisions on funding, he said.  “This is the place where I’m not quite as optimistic, but this is the place where I think the hard work lies ahead.”

Final thoughts …

Dr. Mount then wrapped it up with some final thoughts.  He recommended that as people are preparing their GSPs, there are some choices to be made about the ten year period for the hydrologic record.  “It might be worthwhile for you when you’re putting together your plans to go ahead and plan for that 2012-2016 drought,” he said.  “That’s what our modeling suggests is the drought of the future.  You can make for a worse drought, we can start planning infinite terribleness and at some point, we just can’t plan anymore.  But that 2012-2016 drought was a useful drought.  It’s the drought of the future, you should be trying to incorporate it. .. So I want to encourage you all to think about drought as your limiting factor, how you will respond to these severe droughts, and what you’ll do to manage those severe droughts because they are going to come.”

Drought is the thing that’s going to be driving water management in groundwater for the indefinite future, he said.  “I converted groundwater use in the San Joaquin Valley to sustainable groundwater use, and that is in that diagram, I eliminated the 1.86 MAF per year structural deficit and did that simply by using less in dry years and recharging more during wet year, just simple math, and that’s what it looks like.  It isn’t crazy, when you look at it, that’s not so bad, and incorporated in that is an amazing drought where under a sustainable program, you would have had 21 MAF of additional pumping and it’s still sustainable.

You and others have an exceptional opportunity; don’t waste it,” Dr. Mount said.  “That opportunity is that we’re about the change administrations, from what I know about the two guys who are running for governor, they don’t have a strong environmental program, they don’t have a strong water program … the victory goes to those who show up first, so my suggestion is the organizations that are out there, you should be seriously thinking about courting the next governor now.

You can’t get to sustainability on your own,” he said.  “You need to have these broad reforms in planning, you need these broad reforms to the  infrastructure that supports all this – that is modernizing that grid, you need help with the water allocation system, particularly for groundwater recharge, and you also need some money.  All four of those are needed and just imagining you’ll write your own sustainability plan and it will all be fine and everybody will work together and it will work out, I think is naïve so I would suggest that you all need to start hiring lobbyists.  But the fact is you need representation at the table early and often, and that will make all the difference to all of you.”

Thank you.”



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