Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): groundwater

One area in California will tap regional planning to respond to the state’s groundwater law. Here’s how it could help farmers.

Now that critically overdrafted groundwater basins in the Central Valley have submitted their sustainability plans, the hard work begins for them to balance groundwater supply and demand in ways that minimize economic disruption.

A state program called Regional Conservation Investment Strategies (RCIS) can help.

RCIS wasn’t created to help groundwater basins comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Rather, it was established in 2016 as a framework for regions to prioritize and develop measurable habitat conservation outcomes including those needed to  adapt to climate change.

This week, however, the Kaweah Subbasin was awarded $515,000 from the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board to develop an RCIS plan, becoming the first region in the Central Valley to leverage the process in response to SGMA. We at EDF think it could serve as a model for other communities for two reasons: Read More »

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This bill will protect scarce water supplies for rural Arizona, if the Legislature can pass it

Breakthrough reporting by the Arizona Republic widely exposed what is perhaps one of the state’s darkest water secrets: Groundwater pumping is essentially unregulated in nearly 80% of the state, putting the livelihoods and water supplies of up to 1.5 million residents at risk.

Groundwater is essential for life in the Southwest. It makes up about 40% of the water that Arizonans use each year. In many of the state’s rural areas, groundwater is the only available water supply.

Although Arizona regulates groundwater in and around Phoenix and Tucson, there are no limits on groundwater pumping in most of the state. As a result, more than a third of Arizona’s perennial rivers have been lost or altered; the city of Kingman’s main aquifer is projected to run out of water in 60 years or less; and residents in rural Arizona are already seeing their wells run dry.

Lack of oversight and transparency on groundwater pumping has left communities and rural citizens powerless to secure their water supplies.

Without action by the Arizona Legislature to address this crisis, rural communities will face ever-mounting groundwater challenges as populations grow, out-of-state mega farms move in and persistent drought continues. Fortunately, state leaders – both Republicans and Democrats – are now coming forward with legislation to tackle rural groundwater challenges. Read More »

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Groundwater plans are due in California, but the hard work is just getting started

January 31 is a big day for California water. It’s the day when 19 critically overdrafted groundwater basins must submit plans to the state for how they will bring their groundwater demand in line with available supplies over the next 20 years.

This deadline was set by the state’s most sweeping water law change in a century – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). SGMA, passed during the last major drought, was designed to put an end to groundwater overpumping and ensure there’s enough water for people, the economy and wildlife in California for generations to come.

SGMA is taking water managers and users into uncharted territory. Since its passage, California water managers have made important progress, creating new groundwater agencies and learning more about their local groundwater supplies and demands. These are important first steps toward sustainability, but SGMA requires a deeper paradigm shift to succeed.

Here are four actions that will help drive this massive shift and move California closer to truly balancing groundwater supply and demand.

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Colorado River Basin story map highlights importance of managing water below the ground

The Colorado River is a water workhorse for seven western states, supplying drinking water to 40 million people. But it’s not the region’s only important source of water.

Groundwater — the water underground that we can’t see — is also hugely important in the Colorado River Basin. Groundwater provides base flow to rivers and streams, supports groundwater-dependent ecosystems, serves as the primary source of drinking water for many rural communities and plays a key role in water supply balance.

Unlike the Colorado River, which is governed by multi-state agreements, groundwater management is generally most appropriately carried out at the state and local level because groundwater availability is highly localized and variable throughout the basin.

However, gaining a strong understanding of groundwater availability and use across the Colorado River Basin is more critical than ever to managing the system-wide supply and demand balance and long-term planning, especially as the climate becomes increasingly arid. New Colorado River story map highlights importance of groundwater sustainability in the West Click To Tweet

EDF created an online story map at www.edf.org/colorivgw. The story map aims to provide a more holistic view of groundwater supplies and challenges in the seven-state Colorado River Basin (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming), drawing from recent research.

Here are four key highlights from the story map that demonstrate the importance of groundwater and the challenges of groundwater management in the arid West: Read More »

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Five years into SGMA, here are five important considerations for balancing groundwater quality and quantity

This blog post was written by Sarah Fakhreddine, a former Lokey fellow in EDF’s Western Water program.

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), signed into law five years ago, requires local leaders to balance groundwater demand and supplies for the first time. Groundwater is an important foundation of California’s water system, and SGMA is a crucial way of strengthening that foundation and creating a more resilient future for the state.

However, balancing groundwater budgets will not be easy. And this major challenge is further complicated by the fact that activities designed to increase groundwater supplies can unintentionally cause new groundwater quality problems or worsen existing contamination.

A new working paper that Environmental Defense Fund co-authored with Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; Green Science Policy Institute; and the Energy and Environmental Sciences Area of Berkeley Lab outlines how groundwater management activities can affect not only the quantity but also the quality of groundwater.

Our paper aims to help groundwater sustainability agencies and local communities avoid inadvertently contaminating supplies as they change management practices to comply with SGMA. In fact, it’s even possible for some SGMA projects aimed at increasing groundwater quantity to actually improve groundwater quality, too, the paper notes.

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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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