Viewpoints: It’s time for a breakthrough on groundwater management

04/17/2014 12:00 AM

04/16/2014 4:37 PM

It’s the height of the spring planting season in the San Joaquin Valley. But this year, the sight of well-digging rigs is adding a new dimension to a problem quietly unfolding beneath large swaths of this fertile land.

Faced with the prospect of receiving little or no surface water due to drought, growers are relying on groundwater like never before to stay afloat this year. It’s a symptom of a problem that is sparking new levels of concern among the state’s water managers.

Three consecutive dry years and two decades of unreliable surface water supplies, along with significant increases in permanent agricultural plantings in some areas, are putting unprecedented strain on groundwater basins in the Valley and elsewhere in the state. In some areas, groundwater levels have dropped so much that the land is subsiding to an alarming degree with potentially catastrophic economic impacts.

Though the vast majority of California’s groundwater basins are under sound local and regional management, some are not. The decline of groundwater is becoming unsustainable in some basins, while local subsidence and degraded water quality continue to raise alarm. In some cases, unchecked new demands for groundwater in areas not under active management are stressing the resource to a tipping point.

The statewide Association of California Water Agencies recently created a Groundwater Sustainability Task Force to develop a suite of far-reaching recommendations for improving groundwater management throughout the state. The recommendations – groundbreaking in scope and nature – spell out our vision for legislative and administrative changes that would strengthen groundwater management and accountability where it is deficient, provide new tools and authorities to accelerate progress by local agencies, and define an enhanced role for the state where the job is not being done.

As the chair and vice chair of the task force, we agree with The Bee’s assessment in its April 13 editorial “State must act quickly to protect groundwater.” These recommendations, approved unanimously by ACWA’s statewide board of directors in March, are game-changing.

Local water managers have been working for some time to advance real solutions, but getting broad agreement on something as complex and intensely local as groundwater is difficult. Today, however, the conversation is changing. There is a marked shift toward acknowledging problems and a greater willingness to try ideas that can work.

The best opportunity to achieve sustainable management continues to be at the local level. Groundwater basins around the state are too diverse and local conditions too varied to make a “one-size-fits-all” state policy workable. The Brown administration’s recent California Water Action Plan acknowledges this fact.

But while groundwater management is best left in local hands, it’s time to raise the bar. We need to recognize there are problems out there, and provide the tools and authorities that can help local and regional entities meet the challenge.

It’s also time to acknowledge that state intervention may be warranted in cases where a local agency is unable to protect and manage the basin, or fails to adopt a plan or meet performance measures.

There are numerous successes in protecting groundwater around the state. Our vision is to duplicate that in areas that are not yet there.

Our recommendations call for the following:

• New uniform requirements for groundwater management planning and performance reporting
•  A clear definition of “sustainable groundwater management” in state law
• A menu of best management practices for implementing groundwater management plans
• New tools and authorities for groundwater management agencies to restrict pumping where appropriate
• New state administrative measures to ensure local groundwater management accountability
• A funding approach, including local fees on groundwater pumping, to support local capacity building and implementation
• Comprehensive state action to restore the reliability of our statewide surface water supply system
• Backup regulations by the state, if local water managers are unable or unwilling to get the job done

Over the long term, as we better manage the amount of water that is pumped from our groundwater basins, we also must repair surface water supply systems that were designed, in part, to bring replenishment water to those basins. Those surface water supplies have been sharply reduced in recent years due to drought, regulatory restrictions to protect species, and other factors. Improvements in our statewide water system must be part of the equation, if we are to achieve sustainable groundwater conditions and protect our agricultural and urban economy.

As discussions heat up in the regulatory and legislative arenas in the coming weeks, the ACWA is ready to play a leading role in shaping solutions. Is every water user on board? No, but we are moving in the right direction.

Groundwater provides more than one-third of California’s water in average years, and much more in drought years. It will only become more critical in the coming decades. These recommendations can pave the way for a breakthrough on protecting and managing our groundwater resources. Let’s move ahead.

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