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CIRS Blog about Rural California

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WASHINGTON — The El Niño storms drenching California won’t suffice to solve the state’s drought and won’t permanently save the Central Valley’s vulnerable salmon, federal scientists are cautioning.

 

In an apolitical assessment that comes amid a highly political time, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts stress that this year’s El Niño bounty is both useful and limited. It might well be followed, moreover, by a swing back to a different kind of weather complication called La Niña. 

 

Not all water demands are going to be met, 100 percent, by the recovery we’re seeing relative to the last four years,” NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling said Wednesday in a news briefing. “There are systemic issues with water supply that go beyond precipitation in any given year.”

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California endured its fourth year of drought in 2015, but farm sales appear headed for another record. Water was shifted from low-value crops such as alfalfa to higher-value nuts, and prices for many farm commodities were strong.

California agriculture "normally" uses about 33 million acre feet of water. In 2015, agriculture used 30 million acre feet. Two-thirds of the nine million fewer acre feet of surface water available in 2015 was replaced with groundwater pumped from underground aquifers. Groundwater is normally 40 percent of the water used by agriculture, and 60 percent in dry years.

The water in underground aquifers accumulated over centuries, and cannot be replaced quickly. California in 2014 became the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping, enacting laws that created local groundwater sustainability agencies to register private wells, monitor the water-measuring devices that must be attached to pumps, and regulate groundwater pumping. The agencies are financed by fees charged to farmers and other water users.

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California suffered its fourth year of drought in 2015, prompting the federal government to deliver no water to its Central Valley Project farm customers and the state to deliver 20 percent of contracted water to farmers.  Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals. Annual farm sales of about $43 billion account for less than two percent of the state's $2 trillion GDP.

Governor Jerry Brown in April 2015 ordered urban water districts to reduce water consumption through incentives and fines by 25 percent in 2015. The State Water Resources Board enforces the water reduction plan via local water districts. Brown exempted agriculture from the cuts, prompting criticism. One commodity spotlighted was almonds, since the state's 900,000 acres require about four-acre feet of water per acre, twice as much as cotton, grapes or tomatoes.

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California is in its fourth year of drought http://ca.gov/drought). After a wet December 2014, there was little rain in January 2015. February rains partially filled some reservoirs, including Shasta Lake, which rose from 40 percent to 60 percent of capacity, but the entire state was declared a drought emergency area.

Agriculture, which uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals, fallowed 400,000 or about five percent of crop land in 2014, but over 500,000 acres are expected to be fallowed in 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that most of its Central Valley Project farm water customers would receive no federal water in 2015, while the State Water Project said it would provide 20 percent of contracted water to its farmer customers.

By one estimate, the state's 860,000 acres of almonds each year require three times more water than the city of Los Angeles.

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By Lynn Graebner

Thousands of residents in rural disadvantaged communities in the Salinas Valley may soon have help avoiding drinking water from domestic wells and small water systems contaminated with dangerous levels of nitrate.

A grass roots pilot project by the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) is helping rural low-income residents organize their communities so they can apply for grants for drilling new wells or for infrastructure to connect to municipal systems.

“We’re trying to connect people into a regional network,” said Vicente Lara, Central Coast program coordinator for the Coalition. “A lot of people think they’re the only ones experiencing this problem. This is a regional issue.”

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California is in its fourth year of drought (http://ca.gov/drought). After a wet December 2014, there was little rain in January 2015. February rains partially filled some reservoirs, including Shasta Lake, which rose from 40 percent to 60 percent of capacity, but the entire state was declared a drought emergency area.

Agriculture, which uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals, fallowed 400,000 or about five percent of crop land in 2014, but over 500,000 acres are expected to be fallowed in 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that most of its Central Valley Project farm water customers would receive no federal water in 2015, while the State Water Project said it would provide 20 percent of contracted water to its farmer customers.

By one estimate, the state's 860,000 acres of almonds each year require three times more water than the city of Los Angeles.

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California has about eight million acres of irrigated crop land. A third is planted to perennial fruit and nut crops, a third to field crops such as cotton and rice, and a third to crops that are fed to animals, such as alfalfa and corn. The rising share of crop land planted to perennials has "hardened" the demand for irrigation water, since they must be watered even in drought years.

 

For example, 15 percent of the land in the Westlands Water District is planted to almonds, up from five percent in 2000.

 

In a normal year, about two-thirds of the water used in agriculture is surface water, captured in dams and reservoirs in northern California and transported south via canals to farmers. The other third is groundwater pumped from underground aquifers. Drought reduced the amount of surface water available to farmers by 6.6 million acre feet in 2014 compared with normal years, but farmers compensated by pumping an additional five million acre feet of groundwater.

 

With reduced supplies of water devoted mostly to high-value perennial crops, there were small reductions in farm sales and farm jobs in 2014. Between 420,000 and 700,000 acres of the state's eight million irrigated acres were fallowed in 2014, reducing crop sales by up to $810 million.

The main worry is how to respond to a drought in 2015 and beyond. Groundwater aquifers are a shared resource: as some farmers dig ever-deeper wells, they force others who share to same aquifer to dig deeper as well.

 

California was the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping. A package of bills enacted by the state in 2014 creates local groundwater sustainability agencies to register private wells, monitor the water-measuring devices that must be attached to pumps, and regulate groundwater pumping. These new agencies will impose fees on well owners to finance their activities.

 

Economists have proposed that landowners in each groundwater basin receive the share of sustainable water extraction that reflects their share of land in the basin. The sustainable share of groundwater that could be pumped from the basis would be the average amount extracted and replenished during a decade of "normal" weather.

 

Landowners could extract their sustainable share of the groundwater in the basin for the cost of pumping. However, if they took more, they would have to pay to replace their excess withdrawal. Under such a scheme, there would be no restrictions on groundwater pumping, but excess water extractions would result in payments to the water district that could go to farmers who fallow land and make more water available to others or be used to buy water from outside the basin for replenishment.

 

Orange County has since the 1960s used a version of this cap-and-trade system to manage the extraction of groundwater and prevent salt water intrusion. Economists hope that the challenge of sharing limited groundwater will encourage farmers to embrace water-sharing on a basin-wide basis.

 

A University of California at Davis study estimated that there were almost 7,000 fewer jobs for hired farm workers on crop farms, both year-round and seasonal. The state provided funds to farm worker service organizations to help farm workers, and they reported that the food and rent assistance vouchers they could provide were gone quickly. Agricultural areas of California have large numbers of poor residents, so there is a large pool of persons eligible for assistance.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With endocrine-disrupting compounds affecting fish populations in rivers as close as Pennsylvania's Susquehanna and as far away as Israel's Jordan, a new research study shows that soils can filter out and break down at least some of these emerging contaminants. The results suggest that water pollution can be diminished by spraying treated wastewater on land rather than discharging it directly into streams, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

 

Using Penn State's 600-acre "Living Filter" -- a wastewater reuse system less than a mile from the University Park campus -- as a laboratory, researchers tested soil samples for the presence and accumulation of three estrogens. For almost three decades, more than 500 million gallons of treated wastewater from the campus has been sprayed annually from irrigation pipes onto this site, which is composed of cropland, grassland and forest.

 

To understand how endocrine-disrupting compounds behave in the soil, researchers extracted samples and analyzed for two natural estrogens, 17-beta-estradiol and estrone -- hormones naturally produced by humans and animals, such as dairy cattle -- and one synthetic estrogen, 17-alpha-ethynylestradiol -- a compound in birth-control pills.

 

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The rainy season has finally arrived to California, and 2014 will end with one of the wettest months on record. Many of California’s streams are flowing again, snowpack is building, and some of the state’s most severely depleted reservoirs have recovered modestly during recent weeks. However, California is still in drought, and needs a lot more rain in order for this historic dry spell to be declared over—somewhere around 11 trillion gallons according to NASA.

 

Water is (and always has been) a highly contentious issue in California; one that politicians have struggled to deal with in a way that appropriately balances the needs of urban and rural communities, industry, agriculture, wildlife and the environment. Thanks in large part to the multi-year drought, which intensified throughout 2014, some of California’s toughest water issues will be addressed at long last. State lawmakers and regulators stepped up to the plate by enacting a series of historic reforms including unprecedented (but still modest) fines for wasting water, drought relief packages, and increased enforcement of existing regulations.

 

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Despite one of the most severe droughts in California history, the Coachella Valley's overall consumption of water largely held steady during much of this year.

A review of water agencies' data by The Desert Sun has found that the total amount of groundwater pumped during the first eight months of 2014 was down only about 0.8 percent compared to the same period last year.

The data show the area has made some progress in conserving water during the past five years: It used 5.5 percent less water in 2013 than it did in 2009. But the total amount pumped by all users — including water agencies, golf courses, farms and others — has actually increased since reaching a low in 2010 and has remained about the same since 2011.

From January through August this year, despite the drought, the area's total use of groundwater was up 3.9 percent as compared to 2010.

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The drought dominated farm-related news in summer 2014. California's Lake Oroville was less than 40 percent of capacity and Nevada's Lake Mead was at its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s, less than 1,100 feet above sea level rather than the usual 1,200 feet. 

California's State Water Resources Control Board in July 2014 instituted mandatory statewide water restrictions for the first time, allowing local water agencies to fine those who waste water up to $500. The new regulations by the SWRCB, which regulates only urban water use, limit outdoor watering to two days a week, largely prohibit washing sidewalks and driveways, and ban washing cars without a shut-off nozzle on the hose.

A University of California at Davis study estimated that 429,000 acres or five percent of California's eight million acres of irrigated land would be fallowed in 2014 due to lack of water, including 10,000 acres that would normally be planted to vegetable and melon crops. About 40 percent of California's irrigated crop land, some 3.2 million acres, are planted to trees and vines, "hardening" the demand for water in the sense that perennial crops must be watered each year.

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California’s historic drought continues to intensify. The very real impacts across the entire state include idled farmland and associated farmworker job losses, farm income losses, and food price increases. The state’s dwindling reservoir supply has resulted in mandatory water cutbacks and unprecedented fines for some, but no region of California has conserved as much water as Governor Brown has requested (20 percent). Water use actually increased 1 percent in urban areas last May, compared to the May average from 2011-2013. Residents of several cities are still receiving violation notices for failing to keep front lawns green, even though they are saving water. In rural communities, the impacts of drought are far more obvious, particularly in communities reliant on groundwater as a primary source of drinking water.

  

 

San Joaquin Drought

Caption: The San Joaquin River running dry below Fraint Dam in April 2014, image from American Rivers, ©Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk

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In the San Joaquin Valley, water is pumped out of aquifers at roughly twice the rate of replenishment through precipitation. Groundwater overdraft is a common phenomenon all over California, where demand for water outweighs supply. This is especially true during drought years, and of paramount concern right now because of California’s multiyear drought. Underground water levels have declined as much as 200 feet in the San Joaquin Valley during the past two years alone.

 

This year, California water experts estimate that over-pumping from groundwater aquifers will make up for over 1.5 trillion gallons of water that will not be delivered through the state’s extensive surface water projects. Compensating with groundwater is a risky and costly enterprise. UC Davis predicts that the increased groundwater use will cost nearly $500 million, with the greatest share of resource and economic impacts occurring in the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin.

 

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Maximum land subsidence in the United States USGSThe signs on this pole in Mendota, CA show the approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. The rate of subsidence is even faster now.

 

 

Like any natural resource, the surface of the earth is dynamic and ever-changing, and responsive to what happens around and underneath it. Land subsidence is the process by which land surfaces sink downward. Upper layers of the subsoil dry out and compact, reducing the pore sizes or eliminating the spaces between soil particles. This is a permanent, irreversible condition—watering the soil does not and will not cause the land to rebound in altitude. The land literally sinks under its own weight, filling voids where water has been extracted, thus decreasing the total storage capacity of the affected aquifer. As the water table drops, shallow wells can dry up, and the water levels in nearby lakes and streams also drop. Groundwater overdraft can cause seawater intrusion in coastal areas, further degrading the quality of remaining groundwater. The Mojave River Basin recently experienced desiccation cracks, sink holes, and fissures more than three feet wide and deep as a result of groundwater overdraft.

More than 80 percent of the identified subsidence in the United States (affecting over 17,000 sq. miles in 45 states) is a consequence of groundwater depletion by humans. In Merced County, for example, unsustainable groundwater pumping caused an alarming subsidence rate of nearly a foot per year during the past two years—much faster than previously documented.

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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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California’s drought will deal a severe blow to Central Valley irrigated agriculture and farm communities this year, and could cost the industry $1.7 billion and cause more than 14,500 workers to lose their jobs, according to preliminary results of a new study by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Researchers estimated that Central Valley irrigators would receive only two-thirds of their normal river water deliveries this year because of the drought.

The preliminary analysis represents the first socio-economic forecast of this year’s drought, said lead author Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics.

“We wanted to provide a foundation for state agricultural and water policymakers to understand the impacts of the drought on farmers and farm communities,” Howitt said.

The Central Valley is the richest food-producing region in the world. Much of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown on the region’s 7 million acres of irrigated farmland.

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With nearly all of California unable to shake off one of the most stubborn droughts in its history, Governor Brown is taking steps to prepare the state for the long dry season that looms ahead.

Last week, he issued his second proclamation of drought emergency since the start of the year. In doing so, he called out the likely connection between the drought and climate change, stating, “We are playing Russian Roulette with our environment.”

The Governor’s proclamation orders expedited actions and eases regulations across key state agencies and local actors, including the Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and local homeowners associations.

In addressing the needs of water users across the state, it is clear the Governor faces some tough decisions for managing drought impacts on farms, cities, and the environment. Too timid a response could leave water users stranded; too heavy a hand could hurt regulatory authority and damage fragile ecosystems already crippled by drought.

The Governor has gone for a balance between these approaches, and last Friday’s executive order has largely been praised by stakeholders across the spectrum.

So what does the Governor’s second set of drought orders mean for California’s farms and ranches?

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By Annie Beaman and Poppy Davis                                                  

 

This is the second of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. This brief focuses on ground water management. A third brief will address water quality and the fourth will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of this brief: CA-Groundwater-Storage-and-Delivery-Brief.pdf

 

Importance: Over 850 million acre feet of water is stored in the state’s 450+ groundwater reservoirs. Groundwater is a critical resource in California, supplying an average of 30-40% of total water statewide, and upwards of 60-70% in dry conditions. California consumes far more groundwater than any other state, pumping an average of 10-15 billion gallons per day.

Recharge: Groundwater recharge occurs naturally when surface water from precipitation, rivers and streams, and irrigation runoff percolates through the soil to aquifers. Aquifers are underground formations of permeable rock that can contain and transmit groundwater. Artificial recharge programs allow excess surface water to be stored and released slowly through canals, irrigation furrows or sprinkler systems, or spread on dedicated recharge fields for percolation into these same underground “reservoirs.” In some cases, water is injected directly into the subsurface via wells.

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Overdraft: Groundwater overdraft occurs when water is withdrawn at a faster rate than it can be replenished. Aquifer levels change from year to year based on environmental and other factors, and regular monitoring combined with responsible management can prevent long-term groundwater depletion. Overdraft contributes significantly to water quality problems in aquifers[i] and salinization of coastal aquifers, because the effects of groundwater pollution and sea water intrusion are magnified when water levels are low. Overdraft can also cause subsidence, wherein the land above depleted aquifers sinks downward. Imported water from statewide water programs can supplement the total amount of water available for use in overdrafted areas, but can rarely restore underground water levels completely.[ii]

Management: Groundwater is managed locally in California; there is no statewide law that governs the use or management of this resource, nor any requirement that local authorities report their activities to the state.[iii]  Literally hundreds of local water agencies and authorities oversee groundwater delivery infrastructure including pumping wells and irrigation systems. Under common law, private landowners have “overlying” or “correlative” rights to use groundwater, meaning that each owner may operate wells and irrigation systems that use “reasonable” amounts of water for “beneficial” purposes—broad categories that generally lack statewide regulation or oversight.[iv] California is the only remaining western state without a statewide groundwater management system in place. Instead, disputes over groundwater are addressed at the local level and by courts.

 

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