Hydrologist Derik Williams discusses the different paths GSAs are taking to get to sustainability, plus the three things every GSP should include

Derik Williams is a professional geologist and certified hydrologist with more than 30 years of experience managing groundwater in California.  He’s recently completed the development of two Groundwater Sustainability Plans (or GSPs) in critically overdrafted basins along the Central Coast and is starting on 5 other GSPs for non-critically overdrafted basins.  In this presentation from the California Irrigation Institute’s conference, Mr. Williams gave his perspective on some common themes in SGMA implementation and the different paths that groundwater basins are taking towards sustainability.

HOW ARE BASINS GETTING TO SUSTAINABILITY

The first part of Mr. Williams’ presentation focused on themes and presented some examples as to how basins are getting to sustainability.  “SGMA does not have to be the end of the world,” he said.  “It might be a stop along the way, but we are able to get to sustainability with different ideas.”

He also noted that the lessons learned so far are for the critically-overdrafted basins, which by definition are the most difficult basins to get to sustainability.   “These are going to look like the most difficult egregious plans there are,” he said.  “So when you look at them, don’t be too disheartened, saying my plan is going to look this terrible, because they have the most difficult path to go through.”

The red areas on the map on the slide are showing where the fully appropriated rivers in California are, which means there isn’t likely anymore water to take out of the rivers in those areas for groundwater recharge.

There are some very smart lawyers who are working very hard to get some more water out of them, but at the top level, any of those rivers that are shown in red, you have no chance of getting any more water out of those for groundwater recharge,” Mr. Williams said.  “If you were to overlay on that map the map of critically overdrafted basins, you would see a very good correlation between where there is no surface water for recharge and where the basins are critically overdrafted.  Because of that, it gives these basins that are just turning in their plans today and this week, it gives them very few options for how to get to sustainability.”

He noted that the basins that are shown in dark blue and not critically overdrafted have more options.

Even with all of the constraints, the groundwater sustainability plans being submitted by the critically-overdrafted basins have a number of options, although admittedly, some of them might be a little more realistic than others, he said.  He noted that Eric Averett with the Rosedale-Rio Bravo WSD in Kern County told him that during the development of their plan, they came up with 200 different potential recharge plans that they were willing to implement.

I’m not sure they have water for any of them, but they are going forward with some of the options there,” he said.

When it comes to getting to sustainability, there are really only two options, he said. It’s a supply and demand problem; it’s either reducing demand or increasing supply.  Reducing demand can happen in a number of ways, but it really comes down to saying, ‘we have a limited supply, we are going to pump within that limited supply.’  Future GSPs will likely have more options for the supply side, such as being able to import or store or use their water more wisely, he said.

Mr. Williams noted that some of the basins that are critically-overdrafted are not in the red areas that have fully-appropriated rivers and those basins did come up with options for how they were going to get to sustainability.

There are options out there, even for the critically-overdrafted basins, and they have some themes to them,” he said.

Mr. Williams then gave some specific examples from three different basins that he worked with:

The Mid-County Santa Cruz Basin includes the City of Santa Cruz and areas south of the city.  There isn’t a lot of agriculture in the basin.  Their problem is seawater intrusion, so they are going to be injecting recycled water to prevent the intrusion.

They are also going to set up a regional surface water transfer system which has two important points.  First, it will allow them to use all of their water resources in an integrated way.  The second is that they are working regionally which makes more tools available than if it were just their own individual areas.  Mr. Williams acknowledged that it’s still expensive and it doesn’t get less expensive, but at least you have some tools to throw your money at to get to sustainability.

The Salinas Valley took a somewhat different approach that partially relies on improving existing infrastructure and building new infrastructure for injection, recharge, and actually extraction of seawater intrusion.  A large part of the plan includes reservoir reoperation and modifying some of their water rights; he noted that surprisingly, the State Water Resources Control Board is actually trying to be helpful with changing their water rights.

Mr. Williams said it does bring up a theme for those who are developing GSPs that they should consider. “The surface water historically has been used in the least expensive way; at least in Salinas, they used it in the least expensive way which was to take it out and deliver it directly to who needs it, end of story.  What we are talking about now is using surface water in a more expensive way.  Take it out, recharge it, and move it around.  It’s more expensive, but we get to use the water more effectively.  So if you’re thinking about strategies for your GSP, you want to get away from the idea of what’s the cheapest thing we can do, and get more towards the idea of what is the best use of this water, because all of these plans are going to involve some cost.  You may as well take the cost and use the water well, is my approach.”

The Paso Robles Basin took yet another approach.  Mr. Williams noted that the path of the coastal branch of the State Water Project winds through the eastern third of the Paso Robles Basin and there is enough water available through that part of the State Water Project that they could solve their problem, but they decided not to take any of it.

That’s fine,” he said.  “This is one of the great things about SGMA.  You get to make a local decision as to whatever you want and so they have decided they are going to get to sustainability through pumping reductions and through efficiency.  Now the plan doesn’t say we don’t want any projects, but they have said, as an agency, we are not going to implement these projects.   The plan lays out six or seven projects that are reasonable that anybody could do.”

In fact, J. Lohr vineyards has stepped up and is designing some of them because in his financial calculation, it’s worth it for him to build a project and bring the water to himself, rather than the pumping reductions,” he continued.  “Another idea you might want to think about when you’re developing the GSPs is that are there options for public-private partnerships.  This is one fell into our lap so I didn’t really do an analysis of what the advantages of public private partnerships are, but it did work out fairly well for us there by luck.”

In summation, there are different options for how to get to sustainability.  Different basins have taken different options based on what the locals want to implement and what the cost is.  In non-critically overdrafted basins that are developing their GSPs, there will probably be even more options.

All of the options are going to cost something,” said Mr. Williams.  “You might notice this is a theme I keep saying.  There is a cost involved.”

MAKING SUSTAINABILITY WORK

Next, Mr. Williams turned to how sustainability can work without putting everybody out of business, or in other words, how do you make it palatable.

The GSP should have in it some ideas for how we make these reductions palatable so people are not going out of business, we still have a thriving economy, and everybody is moving forward with their lifestyle the way it has been,” he said.

There are three things that GSPs should have: equitable structures, flexible GSPs, and supportive GSPs.    They aren’t necessarily things that get you to sustainability, but what they do is make sustainability palatable, he said.  He then discussed each in turn:

Equitable structures

An equitable structure is mainly about water allocation systems.  All the critically-overdrafted basins are going to end up with a water allocation system whether they call it that or not because they have to reduce their pumping.  Some basins may have plenty of water so allocations may not be necessary, but most basins are going to need an allocation that determines how the pumping is divided among the groundwater pumpers, so when you are developing a GSP, you should be thinking about the structure of that allocation, Mr. Williams said.

Don’t worry about the numbers as the numbers are going to change going forward,” he said.  “Trust me, I’ve been in this business decades; I have put out lots of numbers and none of them are right.  And the reason is because hydrology is not an engineering discipline; it’s half science and half art.  A lot of the numbers I’ve put out are close to right, but none of them are right.  Numbers in hydrology change all the time.  You are going to be better off to get everybody into the room to agree on what the structure is as to how to divide up pumping – based on land use, based on historical cropping patterns, whatever it is, and then whatever the number of your sustainable yield is, you divide up that way.  At least everybody feels as though they have been treated equally.  That’s more important than the actual number out there.”

Flexible GSPs

The GSP should strive to give all groundwater users, growers, and municipalities as many options as possible going forward.

If you say, this is all the water you get, you need to give them options to say, what am I doing with that water,” said Mr. Williams.  “Am I irrigating my own land, am I selling my water permanently or for a year to my neighbor, am I fallowing my land and getting paid out of fallow bank, am I retiring my land and living here but getting paid some large buyout number – all of these options are in many GSPs.”

They don’t get us to sustainability, but what they say to the groundwater users is we are going to everything we can to make sure that you have options on how you use your water to maximize your profit, and that’s the key,” he continued.  “The point of the GSAs should not just be to force reductions or bring in water, but to help the groundwater users figure out ways to make this an equitable system and a system that they live with in some way.”

Supportive GSPs

There are best management practices and technologies that have been around for a long time.  Mr. Williams said that all the GSPs he is writing and many that he has seen have a section where the GSA states they will invest money in getting best management practice ideas out to growers largely because improving irrigation systems and making them as efficient as possible will be less expensive than trying to bring in more water.

When the agency says, you have a limit on how much you can pump, I think it is the agency’s requirement then also to say, we’re going to help you make as much profit as you can off that limited amount of water,” he said.  “There are a lot of technologies out there that I don’t know about as irrigation is not my expertise.  They were talking about uniform distribution of water through irrigation system and it was all news to me.  That’s the type of information that we need to be getting out to all growers to make sure that when we have a reduction in pumping, everybody can stay as a viable entity out there.  This part of the GSP is as important as the part that says, this is how we cut back your pumping.”

“These actions will be included in many GSPs as projects and actions.  They are not ways to get to sustainability, but they are ways to help people with sustainability and this I think is very important in what we have to be doing out there.  And you will see it, by the way, in most plans.”

TAKE HOME MESSAGES

Mr. Williams then concluded with his take home messages.  “SGMA implementation is an ongoing process.  We’re talking about implementation, but we have 20 years to get to sustainability.  Don’t think at the end of your plan, you are going to be sustainable or even know exactly how you’re going to get there.  You’re going to have a direction to get to sustainability and that’s good enough.”

It’s an iterative process and it takes a lot of negotiations so don’t shy away from the negotiations.  A good plan is equitable; you want to have those negotiations early to make sure you have an equitable plan.  You want to give your growers both flexibility and supportive tools to get to sustainability.  It’s going to cost people a fair amount; you need to give them all the tools you can.  By the way, a water market a simply another tool that gets you to sustainability, but it’s not the thing that makes sustainability; it’s a tool that gives growers and option to use water however they want.”

Don’t be too dispirited by the critically-overdrated basin GSPs as they were the most difficult ones, and the ones that are coming up will probably have more options.  But there is going to be a change.  There are going to be increased costs and there are going to be changes in the way you manage your water there, and that is my take on how we’re getting to sustainability.”

Q&A

Question:  I’ve talked to different growers and water agencies down in the South Valley mostly.  The number one thing that the grower always wants to tell me is, ‘Under SGMA, the GSA becomes legally liable for sustainability, not me as a grower.  The state can’t come after me as an individual grower.’ If that’s true, how is a GSA going to work that out?

Derik Williams began by noting that he is not a lawyer.  “It is true that GSAs are the entity that is legally responsible for getting to sustainability.  If 5 or 10 years from now, your basin is not getting to sustainability, the state will look to the GSA and say, why are you not getting to sustainability.  That said, because of that, the GSAs should not write a plan that says please cut back on your pumping.  They should be writing a plan that says, if you do not cut back on your pumping, we are going to do something about it.  You don’t want to be an agency that has some sort of responsibility but no authority to get there, so if you are a GSA and you are responsible for getting to sustainability, you better have some authority in your plan that says we have a way to get to sustainability.  It can’t be based on hoping that somebody else is going to do the right thing there.  Technically you’re right, but GSAs should have strong plans to make sure you get to sustainability in some way.”

Question: Another thing I hear water districts and growers say is, ‘Our GSA has said that we do not need to put meters on our wells, and at the end of the day, the net true usage for the subbasin GSA is going to be determined by a metric, SIMS, satellites, water use assessment.” Is that reality?

Derik Williams: “You are also correct that there is no requirement to meter wells, but there is a requirement to report to DWR every year what the total pumping in the basin was.  You can come up with that number however you want.  You can use metrics if you want and say, this is how much the ET was we believe and we’re going to act some factor to that and say, that was the total pumping in the basin.  So there is not a requirement for meters but you do have to be able to estimate what your pumping is.”

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