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Water & the West

To Manage Groundwater, California Must First Get Basin Boundaries Right

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 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.


Map of California’s 515 groundwater basins, colored according to priority, with red being the highest. Click the map to take a closer look. California Department of Water Resources

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.

Graphic: Failure to Create a Basin-Wide Management Agency Preceded Efforts to Break Up the Paso Robles Basin

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.

 

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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and ABCNews.com. MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

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

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Program Manager

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