Skip to content Skip to navigation

To Manage Groundwater, California Must First Get Basin Boundaries Right

Nov 29 2016

A vineyard in Paso Robles (Matty Shack via Flickr)

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.

 

...& the Best

Water & the West Articles Elsewhere

Water Deeply
Some groundwater basins in California were adjudicated by the courts years ago, and are not subject to the sustainable groundwater law

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.

John Fleck
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. 

Public Policy Information Center’s Water Policy Center
A video on the challenges facing the Sacramento-San Joaquin River 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

Weighing the Future of Bears Ears Butte

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.

 

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer and Rebecca Nelson

Articles Worth Reading: Nov. 7, 2018

Six Western States Have Voted on Contested Environmental Policies. Five of Them Failed. Some ballot initiatives gave midterm election voters a chance to support salmon populations in Alaska or to support a fee on carbon emissions or to oppose recent environmental rollbacks involving drilling. Oil, gas, and mining companies poured money in opposition to statewide ballot measures that could increase costs or diminish revenues. The story of the campaigns and the work of environmental groups ran before the election. The results came today, in places ranging from Colorado to Washington State to Alaska. Mother Jones Denver Post Montana Standard PV Magazine Seattle Times KTUU Anchorage

The Navajo Tribe’s Future Without Its Major Employer and With a New President. As the various financial schemes for prolonging the life of the Navajo Generating Station fell apart, tribal members who work there must choose between finding employment where the new owners assign them, or staying on the reservation until the plant closes a year from now, then having a small chance of any job that pays as well. Their decisions will be made against a new political backdrop, as Joseph Nez, at 43, was just elected the youngest Navajo president ever. ASU/Cronkite News Indian Z News

Rare Dinosaur Fossils Are Threatened by the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Vast areas of land that may contain important paleontological discoveries are now vulnerable to potential energy development. About 250,000 acres of land with a high potential for fossils are being considered for mineral development. Salt Lake Tribune

A Water Reckoning in Colorado. Farming communities in the North Fork Valley of Colorado are water-rich in an era of increasing water scarcity. Farmers continue to use high volumes of water for irrigation. However, with climate change, the community will have to change outdated and inefficient systems in order to share water more cooperatively. High Country News

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in British Columbia. Activist Jessie Housty, a member of the Haíłzaqv nation, is educating young people in her community about their traditional food sources and culture. Her efforts are part of a larger movement to address food insecurity and malnutrition in indigenous communities through providing access to cultural foods. Civil Eats

Articles Worth Reading: Oct. 23, 2018

President Trump Plans to Ease Water Rules in the West by streamlining existing regulations. After signing a memo last week, he claimed he will increase the West’s water supply by hastening projects in California and the Pacific Northwest. But some farming communities, environmentalists, and the Winnemem Wintu tribe oppose his action. Critics of Trump’s memo assert that his plan would weaken environmental regulations, hurt local communities and ecosystems, and flood sacred tribal sites. ASU/Cronkite News Guardian Associated Press Salt Lake Tribune

Spokane Considers How to Adapt to Climate Change. In light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, communities in Spokane are planning how to adapt to the consequences of climate change. People are monitoring rivers and analyzing water consumption to prepare for decreases in snowmelt. The Colville Tribe is planting heat-resistant trees. The Spokesman-Review

For Imperial Beach, Managed Retreat May Be the Plan. Facing threats of increased flooding due to rising seas, the mayor of Imperial City is proposing that the community relocate coastal homes and business farther inland, as a managed-retreat strategy. However, the process of managed retreat raises political and ethical questions that have sparked controversy among community members. High Country News

In the Face of a Water Supply Crisis Along the Colorado River, local water conservation programs in farming communities can foster drought resilience. Policymakers should consider these community-oriented programs when developing drought mitigation strategies. Water Deeply

Managing the Colorado River. Demand for water and electricity have had a significant impact on the Grand Canyon and Colorado River ecosystems. Taking climate change, recreation, and other challenges into account, biologists are exploring the current challenges of river conservation. Arizona Republic

Articles Worth Reading: Oct. 9, 2018

Wildfires Don’t Hurt Real Estate Markets. Researchers from University of Las Vegas determined that real estate markets in Colorado rebound within a year or two of a wildfire, encouraging development in high risk areas. People continue to move to fire-prone areas due to their scenic appeal and proximity to cities. High Country News

Water Disputes in Colorado. A cop investigates conflicts over stolen water in the Four Corners region. His work involves enforcing complex water statures and confronting local tensions over water rights that sometimes turn violent. KUNC Radio

The Potential of Stormwater Capture. In California, communities are expanding their stormwater management programs to include aquifer recharge and irrigation in addition to controlling floods. Captured stormwater could provide Californians with a water supply that is resilient to climate change. Pacific Institute

An Air Quality Monitoring Program Failed to Alert Residents of Seeley, California to the danger of particulate pollution near a local elementary school. The nonprofit responsible for the monitoring, Comite Civico de Valle, seeks to expand its program to other areas despite controversy over its practices. Desert Sun

Bee Thieves Exploit California’s Almond Harvest. Bees play a crucial role in the pollination of almonds in the Central Valley, but colony collapse disorder threatens apiculture. Recent increases in stolen beehives have exacerbated the industry’s challenges. Reveal/CIR

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 25, 2018

In California’s Central Valley, Air Pollution Levels Are Very Local. Residents, like the mother of a young asthmatic profiled here, need to know exactly what they are. “Regulatory agencies think regionally,” said the head of the Central California Asthma Collaborative, a Fresno-based nonprofit. This group and others, helped by new state laws, try to increase the air monitoring in a region with some of the country’s most polluted air. Kaiser Health News

Gender Diversity and California Firefighting. Starting on August 1st, the Donnell Fire burned 36,000 acres in Stanislaus National Forest, and firefighters now have it at least 90% contained. A photographer shares the stories of firefighters tackling California’s Donnell Fire and challenging traditional gender roles in their careers. High Country News

With Climate Change, Algal Blooms Contaminate Oregon Drinking Water. Last May, Oregon declared a civil emergency when toxic algae contaminated Salem’s drinking water, posing health risks to children and nursing mothers. Recently, Oregon became the second state to require testing of potable water for algal toxins. The new regulations are part of the Oregon’s plan to address how climate change is affecting its water quality. KSUT

National Parks Are Warming Twice As Fast as the rest of the country, according to a new study. It focused on 417 protected areas and found they were 1.8 degrees warmer in 2010 than they had been in 1885, double the national average rate, and precipitation was down 12 percent in the same period, compared to three percent nationally. Yale Environment 360

Los Angeles Proposes Giant Hydropower Battery for Hoover Dam, but the project faces many legal and political roadblocks due to Colorado River’s shrinking water supply, which has been a source of conflict between California, Arizona, and Nevada. Los Angeles aims to create a three billion dollar hydropower storage system, consisting of twenty miles of pipeline that connect to Hoover Dam. Water Deeply

Wyoming Turns to Wind Power. Although Wyoming is America’s top coal producer, the state is now garnering increased support for wind power, as the coal industry declines. Proponents of Wyoming’s developing wind power industry emphasize its economic importance, while skeptics raise environmental and aesthetic concerns about how wind turbines will impact the landscape. Natural Resources Defense Council

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 11, 2018

In 27 Years, California Plans to Eliminate Carbon From Its Electrical Grid. That’s the central aim of legislation signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown. A year after a similar bill failed, the new measure underlines California’s desire to be the nation’s leader on working to slow climate change — the shifting weather that has turbocharged the state’s wildfires and caused increasing destruction from Redding to Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, wind developers are eyeing the California coast as a place to create new renewable energy for a changing grid. InsideClimate News Utility Dive

A Floating Boom a Third of a Mile Long is the Newest Garbage Collector in the Pacific Ocean. Its mission: start cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This gyre of sailing detritus has an estimated 1.8 trillion objects rotating slowly between California and Hawaii, and California. The nonprofit Ocean Cleanup is investing $20 million in the project. But can it really remove the 87,000 tons of plastic? New York Times/Associated Press

The Killer of Swaths of Bigleaf Maples in Washington State Is Unknown, but its impact is being felt from Washington State south to California. These trees, whose leaves can stretch a foot across, can grow 100 feet tall. Their impressive silhouettes mean that the landscape changes dramatically as they die. The U.S. Forest Service and the University of Washington, and the Washington state Department of Natural Resources have been studying the maples, but no diseases or insects have been found in significant numbers. So no known culprit. Seattle Times/Tacoma News Tribune

Bighorn Sheep and Moose Tell Their Friends Where to Go for the best food, a new study shows. The notion that migration behaviors, following the green wave of food around the West, was a learned behavior and not a product of genetic inheritance, had been around for a while. The thought was “they just have to learn how to do this,” said Matthew Kauffman, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming. So he set up a study involving bighorn sheep that were transplanted into an area unfamiliar to them, but where established herds existed. Without genetic coding for this particular migration, they did it anyway. National Geographic

Some Called Him ‘The Renaissance Man of the West;’ His Maps Combined Geography, History and Whimsy into one package. Jo Mora, an immigrant from Uruguay, did some sculpture and coin design before finding maps to be his metier. One observer said “They’re almost like books,” to be perused in bits and pieces at several sittings. The maps he left are cartographic cartoons, telling not just the shape of the state, but the stories of its places. Atlas Obscura

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 1, 2018

Hunters Have Waited More Than 40 Years To Shoot Grizzlies around Yellowstone National Park. The wait was almost over, when a federal district judge delayed the hunt for two weeks to study whether the federal Fish and Wildlife Service erred in lifting protections from the bears. Judge Dana Christiansen wrote, “harm to…members [of endangered species] is irreparable because once a member of an endangered species has been injured, the task of preserving that species becomes all the more difficult.” Casper Star-Tribune Montana Free Press

Canada’s Transmoutain Pipeline, Whose Growth Was A Key Aim of the Canadian Government, Just Lost its bid for expansion in court. The Canadian Federal Court of Appeal overturned approval of the pipeline because the government failed to adequately consider native nations’ concerns and didn’t take environmental impacts into account. Opposition groups had argued that the risks of oil spills in the Salish Sea — home to an already-endangered killer whales — and the potential hazards of increased petroleum tanker traffic are too high a price to pay for an economic boom. The expansion could have tripled the 750-mile pipeline’s capacity bringing up to 890.000 barrels a day from tar sands in Edmonton to the coast of British Columbia. Oregon Public Broadcasting Grist Reuters

Facebook and the Navajo Nation Commit to Renewables, but on very different scales. The year-old Solar Project – built mostly by Navajo workers – is the largest tribally-owned renewable power plant in the country and has been operating a year. Generating 27.3 megawatts, it provides enough power for 18,000 Navajo nation homes – the same number that had been without electricity a decade ago. Facebook, the social media giant in Menlo Park, California, is also expanding its uses for renewable power, but on a far vaster level. It has committed to powering its global operations with completely renewable energy by the end of 2020, in party by positioning data centers near electrical grids that can accommodate more renewables. In the last year Facebook has signed contracts for more than 2.5 gigawatts of renewables, Cronkite News/Elemental Utility Dive

Lake Mead Has Been Using Lake Powell to Keep Its Levels Up and postpone the moment when drought contingency plans are triggered because its level has dipped below 1,075 feet. But scientists now report that this draining of Lake Powell can’t go on forever: it is now 48 percent full, while Lake Mead is 38 percent full. “We’re draining Lake Powell to prop it up,” said one scientist. Arizona Republic

Is The Current Drought Just the Beginning? David Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico, says “It is possible that the next big megadrought is upon us, and we’re right in the middle of it.” The snowpack that supplies the upper half of the Rio Grade has decreased 25 percent in the past 40 years. The Elephant Butte reservoir, the largest in the upper Rio Grande, is just six percent full, down from 24 percent last winter. Some 500 years ago, tree rings tell us, a megadrought hit the Southwest just as the Spanish arrived; the population was decimated. And a study shows that climate change increase the chances of a megadrought to 70 percent or more. Quartz

Graphics & the West

 

Recent Center News

Nov 16 2018 | Out West student blog
As a summer intern, Terra Weeks ‘17 wrote an ordinance promoting solar energy use. She now works for the California Energy Commission.
Nov 16 2018 | Stanford News Service | Center News
California’s wildfires have destroyed homes and communities, and even people hundreds of miles away are feeling the effects of smoke. Stanford faculty weigh in on the health effects and increasing frequency of fires.
Nov 14 2018 | Center News, Out West student blog
We’re proud to announce that our 2018 summer intern Emily Wilson has received a Volunteer of the Year award for exemplary service to Yosemite National Park.