Groundwater is an essential buffer against the effects of prolonged drought. Many Californians think of stored water as water kept on the surface—usually in reservoirs behind dams—but California actually has vast underground basins that hold far more water than can be stored above ground.

In reality, groundwater and surface water are a single combined resource, constantly interacting and interchanging. Some programs in California recharge aquifers through carefully planned and prescribed water management practices to ensure adequate supply in the future. In these well-managed areas and some other parts of the state, aquifers still contain sufficient water despite the multi-year drought.

Other parts of the state, like the Tulare Lake Basin, have been dealing with the effects of groundwater overdraft for years already. These effects include higher pumping costs, depletion of surface water, degraded water quality in aquifers, and land subsidence.

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On average, about 30 percent of water used in California comes from groundwater. With no end in sight to drought conditions, and diminishing options for acquiring water from long-established water projects, farmers are relying more heavily on groundwater this year.

A recent UC Davis report, prepared for the CA Department of Food and Agriculture, estimates that California’s surface water shortage will be around 6.5 million acre feet in 2014, and increased groundwater pumping will make up for around 5 million acre feet. However, increased groundwater use will come at a cost of nearly $500 million, and more than half of the economic impacts involving groundwater overdraft will occur in the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basins.

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State-ordered Water Curtailments & Local Measures

California’s farmers are experts in water conservation, especially when compared with farmers in other states. But there is no question that agriculture needs water, and that agriculture at large is among the most water-thirsty industries in California. In 2000 for example, when precipitation levels were average, farmers irrigated over 9.6 million acres of farmland with 34 million acre feet of water. That same year, California cities and suburbs used less than a third of that, about 8.9 million acre feet.

2013 was the driest year on record. Since the drought declaration in January, lawmakers in Sacramento and D.C. have scrambled to develop funding packages, policy proposals, and longer-term solutions to California’s water shortages. Governor Brown noted in January that the state can be much better prepared for the water shortages that droughts bring. He asked all Californians to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20 percent through shorter showers and less lawn watering. Recently,  mandatory conservation measures and curtailed water diversions from streams have also been announced at the local level. So far, these cutbacks mostly impact junior water rights holders, especially in the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds, two areas that have been hit hard by the drought. Complicating California’s water policy even further are court orders involving managed stream flow releases for endangered species, like salmonids and the much-maligned Delta Smelt.

Local curtailments are additional to the early-2014 drought package that suspended water deliveries from state and federally-managed water projects, and also suspended some parts of the California Environmental Quality Act—CEQA—the main law requiring California agencies to identify “significant” environmental impacts of state or local actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts whenever “feasible.” The “limited waiver” of CEQA effectively expanded state decision-making authority regarding water diversions and allocation during the drought.

Proposals for Comprehensive Groundwater Reform

California is the only western state without a groundwater protection policy. Here, groundwater rules and usage limits are set by local agencies and authorities (if at all), and in some cases by courts. Often, these local groundwater management programs integrate groundwater protection, recharge, extraction, and monitoring. Local control, it has often been argued, allows for the most effective and careful management because groundwater basins and local uses vary widely throughout the state. However, local control also results in inconsistency regarding groundwater management and monitoring, and publicly-available information.

One up-side of the current drought is the unusual amount of political unity surrounding sustainable water management, particularly with regard to groundwater. Proposals for comprehensive, statewide reform are currently being considered. These proposals tend to share two goals: (1) give local agencies the tools and authority they need to manage groundwater sustainably, and (2) give the state authority to ensure that basic standards for groundwater quality and quantity are achieved if and when local agencies fail to act.

Governor Brown’s 2014 California Water Action Plan, for example, sets forth strategic goals and actions to provide more reliable groundwater supplies, expand overall water storage capacity, restore vulnerable species and habitat areas, and establish a more resilient and sustainably managed water system for farms and communities. This plan also calls for legislation that would provide local agencies with authority to address groundwater challenges as needed, and when local efforts fail, enhanced state powers would allow agencies to temporarily assume groundwater management activities at the local level.

For a PDF version of the post click here: To pump or not to pump?.pdf