Mattyshack via Flickr
A hidden treasure, groundwater has long sustained agriculture through California’s cycles of drought. Decades ago, state water officials started researching the geological formations that hold groundwater. By the 1950s, hydrogeologists had created an atlas showing the boundaries of more than 500 groundwater basins or subbasins.
But the maps, while showing how well groundwater geology is understood, had a minimal role in groundwater management. For decades, landowners were free to pump water from under their land at will. Now a landmark 2014 law sets up new bosses who will call the shots on who gets groundwater, when and how much. The maps can now influence how the competition for control evolves.
The old atlas, known as “Bulletin 118,” sketches the contours of the new bosses’ territories. These agencies are required to assure supplies are not exhausted. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – its acronym, SGMA, is pronounced like the Greek letter Sigma – requires that the new bosses, called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, develop plans to manage 127 high-priority basins.
As one water official explained, basin boundaries describe buckets of water; the law requires plans to ensure there is always water in the bucket. Multiple sustainability agencies can cooperate to design a plan, as long as they cover the whole basin. To get more heft or independence, many water agencies asked for changes in the maps. As the water department juggles the requests, it seeks both to establish effective local control and to avoid a balkanized system.
On Oct. 18, the state produced the latest map adjustments. The respected water blog Maven’s Notebook reported the bottom line: of 54 requests for changed basin boundaries, the state Department of Water Resources approved 39, denied 12 and three were deemed incomplete.
A Scramble to Redraw Boundaries
The basin boundary changes sought around Paso Robles show the kind of jockeying going on. The Paso Robles basin is a subbasin of the Salinas groundwater basin, which underlies Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties, where the old mix of ranches, trees and row crops has increasingly given way to vineyards.
The subbasin is critically overdrafted. Local wrangling and distrust of government led voters to reject a proposed groundwater management district in March. That district might have become the local groundwater boss. Now that designation may be split among several agencies.
Perhaps with the San Luis Obispo political turmoil in mind, three neighboring agencies asked to modify the basin boundaries so they could manage their groundwater independently. Why? “Changing the boundary lines within a basin can be terribly important to a little fiefdom,” said a legal specialist working on groundwater.
The state rejected two of the requests involving the Paso Robles basin. It partially granted the third by the Templeton Community Service District. As a result, there is a new subbasin, the Atascadero basin. The state found that scientific evidence supported the assertion that a geologic fault creates an effective wall separating it from the Paso Robles subbasin.
Near Paso Robles, Water-Stressed Communities Seek Autonomy
Stretched by population growth and a booming wine industry, the Paso Robles groundwater basin is critically overdrafted. Under California’s new groundwater law, it must be on a path to sustainability by 2020. Local water managers faced a setback this year when San Luis Obispo county voters rejected a proposal to create and fund an agency administering water use in the basin. Three local entities asked to break the basin into parts so they could manage their sections better. The state rejected two of those requests but approved a third, creating the new Atascadero subbasin.
Another request based on scientific evidence came from the Heritage Ranch Community Service District. The district uses no groundwater to serve its customers, and doesn’t see why it is included in the basin. Its request was denied, without explanation.
Having scientific data to support a boundary revision is one route to approval. Another is claiming modifications would mean more effective management. The Monterey County Water Resources Agency sought to separate from the Paso Robles subbasin largely for that reason.
But it failed to get, as required, the formal approval of 75 percent of other regional agencies. Monterey water managers had believed that any agency that did not disapprove the request would be counted as approving it. Not so. Since they didn’t nag others for formal approvals by the deadline, their bid failed. Monterey can still seek the status of an independent sustainability agency. If it does, success seems likely, but having the basin’s jurisdictional lines redrawn “would have been cleaner,” as one San Luis Obispo water manager said.
The efforts to redraw maps are an early example of the kinks in the efforts to make the groundwater law work in practice. “Everyone’s learning the process,” said Rob Johnson, deputy manager of the Monterey agency.
• • •
This is the first of what we at “& the West” plan as a series of pieces examining the establishment and exercise of groundwater governance in California, which trails every other state in developing groundwater controls. Since the first wells were sunk in the 19th century, the state’s groundwater supply has dropped by more than 125 million acre-feet, with the trend accelerating as 20 million acre-feet were lost in the last decade. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to cover an acre of land with a foot of water or the amount one to two average California homes use a year.) The establishment of new structures to control groundwater’s use comes against a background of long-held assumptions and ingrained habits. These will be disrupted. How the state, local agencies and water users react to the disruptions will unfold for months and years. Our academic colleagues at Stanford’s Water in the West program have been following it; we now join them.
…& the Best
Water & the West Articles Elsewhere
Circle of Blue
President Obama renewed the lease for the Navajo Generating Station through 2044; the plant and a related mine on Navajo land in northeastern Arizona provide the energy to get Colorado River water to Arizona, where it has allowed for decades of development.
Reflections on how President-elect Trump’s oft-expressed hostility to NAFTA might affect ongoing binational collaborations between Mexico and the United States on the restoration of the Colorado River’s Mexican delta.
University of Colorado Law School and Gretches-Wilkinson Center — Anne J. Castle and Lawrence J, MacDonnell’s paper proposing expansion of water banking opportunities for the state of Colorado.
Read Next in …& the West
A major land-use decision still sits on the president’s desk: a coalition of five Native nations wants to make 1.9 million acres of southeastern Utah, around the Bears Ears butte, a new National Monument. We share four competing viewpoints.
Topics: SGMA and California Groundwater
& the West has been closely tracking the effect of California’s landmark 2014 groundwater reform law, as new agencies take shape and implement plans to put this precious resource on a sustainable path by 2040.
While expensive solutions like new reservoirs and seawater desalination grab attention, California communities are quietly building up their capacity to clean stormwater and wastewater for reuse for irrigation, industry and, yes, drinking water too.
New agencies find making sustainability plans is hard, but easier than persuading growers to accept them.
Three months after the first market trades of California water futures, a conversation about economic forces and an essential material for life.
Farmers, large and small, are beginning to grapple with what the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act means for them. Many expect to see cutbacks on pumping once the program is fully implemented in 2040.
With new rules coming into effect, farmers and municipalities using groundwater must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness an unconventional and unwieldy source of water: the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California.
New rules and new technology are giving farmers and managers a better look at groundwater supplies.
Like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too.
A vineyard in Paso Robles. Mattyshack via Flickr By Felicity Barringer A hidden treasure, groundwater has long sustained agriculture through California’s cycles of drought. Decades
Staff and Contributors
Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.
‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.
Bruce E. Cain