Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): groundwater

The Groundwater Game: A new hands-on way to learn about groundwater management

One evening, at a community center in the Sacramento Valley, a teacher, a civil engineer, a tomato farmer and a local foundation board member found themselves standing above a table, feverishly competing to scoop the most glass beads from a large, communal bowl.

But there was a catch. Read More »

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This Arizona bill supports local planning for resilient groundwater supplies in two rural counties

Editor’s note: This post was updated on May 23, 2019.

While Colorado River surface water supplies have dominated news headlines recently, Arizona communities face another important water challenge: rapidly declining groundwater levels.

Arizona relies on groundwater for about 40% of its water supply, yet groundwater resources outside of the state’s biggest urban areas are largely unprotected and unregulated, posing a risk to long-term economic growth, community resilience and healthy flowing rivers.

HB 2467, a bill that was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on May 22, takes an important step forward to address groundwater challenges in Mohave and La Paz counties.

Mohave County is in northwest Arizona and includes western portions of the Grand Canyon and the city of Kingman on historic Route 66. La Paz County is just south of Mohave and includes the Interstate 10 corridor, part of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and important perennial streams. In recent years, residential and other small wells have increasingly seen water levels dropping as more large-capacity wells are drilled for commercial agricultural operations moving into the region, often from outside Arizona.

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The clock is ticking for groundwater managers in California’s most over-drafted basins

By this time next year, 21 critically over-drafted groundwater basins in California must submit plans to the state’s Department of Water Resources for how to bring their basins back into balance.

With this major deadline looming, it’s crunch time for water managers and their consultants – some of whom will begin releasing draft plans in the next six to eight months seeking required public comments.

The Jan. 31, 2020, deadline was set by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which the California Legislature approved in 2014.

Successful implementation of SGMA would protect water quality and supplies for agricultural, municipal and wildlife usage. It would also maintain and improve the health and long-term viability of the ecosystems that sustain these various uses.

San Joaquin Valley groundwater pump (Photo Credit: Chris Austin)

Achieving these sometimes competing goals will not be easy. That’s why implementing SGMA will be a major balancing act. Read More »

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The groundwater manager’s dilemma: How to comply with new California law without changing water rights

by Christina Babbitt and Daniel M. Dooley, New Current Water and Land

Over the next two years, more than 100 groundwater sustainability agencies in California will have to hammer out a plan to make their groundwater basins sustainable.

But as mangers in many areas work to combat decades of over-pumping, they face a major dilemma: In dividing the groundwater pie to avoid overuse, they can’t change Byzantine groundwater rights that date as far back as 1903.

In a new working paper, “Groundwater Pumping Allocations under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Environmental Defense Fund and New Current Water and Land – a California-based consulting firm – provide water managers with a recommended approach to navigate this challenge and develop plans that are more durable, and thus likely to succeed, under the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Groundwater pumps in California’s Pajaro Valley. Photo credit: USDA

Choosing which approach is best is a critical step for cutting back groundwater use, which many basins will have to do, and for creating water trading systems, which many basins are considering to better manage increasingly limited groundwater. Before you create a market, you have to define who has how much – in this case, groundwater pumping rights – in order to trade. Read More »

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How water managers can address surface water depletions – California’s “sixth deadly sin”

The Cosumnes River is one of the last undammed rivers west of the Sierra Nevada. While not a large river, it flows year-round out of the Sierras, east of Elk Grove, south of Sacramento, and across the floor of the Central Valley before adding its modest flow to the Mokelumne River.

Every year, however, around the Fourth of July, the lower part of the Cosumnes River goes dry, even while the flow from the Sierras continues. The lower river stays dry until the first big rains come, sometimes as late as December or January, and resumes its high flow throughout the winter months.

When the Cosumnes River flows onto the valley floor, it leaks surface water into groundwater because the groundwater levels are low. In the summer, the river goes completely dry because the flows are especially low compared to the high leakage rates.

How can a river be flowing and then disappear downstream? The explanation lies in the inevitable interaction between groundwater and surface water, which have been managed separately – until now.

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4 ways drones are helping people and nature prepare for climate change

Drones have taken off in popularity, as updates in technology have made them more affordable and maneuverable. These advancements are allowing researchers to capture high-resolution data with accuracy, precision and ease, making drones a valuable tool for understanding how the world around us is changing, and how we can manage this change.

My Environmental Defense Fund colleagues are exploring ways drones can help us build ecosystem resilience, from corn fields in the heartland to wetlands along our coasts.

Here are four inspiring examples. Read More »

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What can Nebraska teach the American West about managing water? A lot.

Nebraska is one of the top producers of corn, soybeans and hogs in the country. With 91 percent of the state’s total land area dedicated to agricultural production, a lot of water is needed to support all of Nebraska’s farms and ranches.

Fortunately, the state sits atop one of the largest underground aquifers in the world. The High Plains Aquifer, commonly referred to as the Ogallala Aquifer, underlies parts of eight states from Texas to South Dakota, and is a vital resource to Nebraskan farmers.

But as farms have expanded and demand for agricultural products has grown, pressure on the aquifer has increased and groundwater levels have been in steady decline for decades.

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The hidden opportunity for water storage in California

Aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources, showing the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville

California’s historic winter ended the drought in many parts of the state and piled up record levels of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With so much precipitation, surface water infrastructure – our network of dams, reservoirs and levees – has been called into action like never before, and in some cases has struggled to handle the influx of flows.

With spring temperatures on the rise, snowmelt and runoff have accelerated, adding another wave of stress to the system. And with snowpack still at 192% of average, there is even more runoff on the way.

So where will all this water go?

With many reservoirs near capacity already, water managers have had to allow spring snowmelt to flow out through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and into the ocean. This is inevitable given the sheer amount of water in the system this year, and in fact, these occasional high flows provide multiple benefits to ecosystems and coastal communities.

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New film shows that clean water isn’t a guarantee for many in California

California’s drought and the San Joaquin Valley’s groundwater crisis

Farms in Kern County along the California Aqueduct, in southern San Joaquin Valley.

National Geographic’s new film, “Water & Power: A California Heist,” explores the impacts of California’s drought and the San Joaquin Valley’s groundwater crisis, and highlights issues surrounding the state’s water rights and the powerful interests that sometimes control them.

The film, which uses beautiful cinematography and testimonials from lawyers, water managers and residents, offers a stark contrast between those who have continued to profit during California’s drought and those who have struggled to meet even their most basic water needs.

The film places an emphasis on the “Monterey Amendments,” a back-room deal struck in 1994 that included the creation of the Kern Water Bank, and opened the door to the bank’s eventual privatization. At the time, well-endowed businesses with large land holdings were given control of these groundwater reserves, which they used to shore up highly profitable agricultural businesses. Since then, groundwater levels have plummeted and become contaminated, impacting safe drinking water supplies for small communities.

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Water heroes emerge in California’s Central Valley

Water board leaders from 13 communities throughout California's Central Valley attended the Leadership Academy to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management.

Water board leaders from 13 communities throughout California’s Central Valley attended the Leadership Academy to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management. (Credit: Kike Arnal)

California’s Central Valley, which stretches 450 miles from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south, is the nation’s richest agricultural region, producing 40 percent of our fruit, vegetables and nuts on nearly 9 million acres of irrigated farmland. The Valley is also ground zero for California’s water problems.

As California endures its fifth year of drought, cities, farms, and communities across the state are experiencing severe water stress. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs are drying up, so residents are turning to groundwater pumping to quench their thirst. As a result, many of the state’s groundwater aquifers are being depleted, causing wells to run dry or become contaminated.

The most critically overdrawn aquifers are in and around small, rural communities in the Central Valley. Here, thousands of people—many of them low-income farm workers—live without safe drinking water.

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