Skip to content Skip to navigation

As California’s Groundwater Free-for-All Ends, Gauging What’s Left

Felicity Barringer
Nov 9 2018

New rules and new technology are giving farmers and managers a better look at groundwater supplies.

alt

Photo Illustration – Original image by Chris Austin via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

Most areas of California farm country have a significant lack of information about their groundwater use. The water managers responsible for putting California’s depleted aquifers on the path to sustainability now need to get the data to do the job. Running the new agencies created under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, these managers must first decide what they need to know, and how to get the information.

The measuring gauges they need would ideally give two different views of groundwater reality. First, account for withdrawals by identifying who is taking the water, then control the withdrawals to ensure sustainability, now required in 109 of the state’s 517 groundwater basins. Second, monitor the overall health of the aquifer to ensure it is not trespassing over the various boundaries of unsustainability now carved into state law.

Heavy users have for decades ardently resisted any accounting. Well meters were anathema. Newly drilled wells were reported to the state, but by law, that information was kept private.

Before they can explore the technical answers to measuring options, managers must wrestle with local attitudes about privacy that have prevailed in areas subject to chronic over-pumping. Heavy users have for decades ardently resisted any accounting. Well meters were anathema. Newly drilled wells were reported to the state, but by law, that information was kept private.

Such confidentiality restrictions ended in 2015, after the passage of the groundwater act; and in early 2017, the State Water Resources Control board made public its digital map of state wells. But just knowing where the wells are isn’t the same as knowing how much they pump, or their impact on the aquifer below.

“As long as nobody was measuring or monitoring groundwater, it was to the advantage of any farmer to pump as much as they could,” said Peter Gleick, the co-founder of the Pacific Institute, who has deep expertise on water issues. The system, he said, “was designed to favor ignorance.” Other experts reject such a blunt anti-farmer viewpoint. Both agricultural use and urbanization, they say, expanded groundwater use beyond sustainability: fingers could point anywhere.

Even With Pumping Unmetered, Remote Sensing Technology Had Lifted the Veil on Groundwater Depletion

Science cover article on GRACE
Science Magazine, September 2014

The intransigence of some groundwater users became less of an obstacle with the rise of options for remote observation. For instance, a pair of twin satellites launched by NASA were able to estimate that Central Valley aquifers had, just between 2003 and 2010, lost 25 million acre-feet of groundwater – well more than half of California’s annual groundwater use around that time. The GRACE satellites showed the world the depletion many Central Valley farmers were already beginning to tackle.

By the time the GRACE program went out of service last year, even finer-grained analysis was possible using data from additional satellites, like NASA’s Landsat orbiters. Such remotely gathered data, along with the need to comply with the new law, has made on-farm metering more palatable. Some managers are learning from areas that have already collected abundant data about groundwater use. Before the new law, the courts spurred the work.

Under State Adjudication for 22 Years, Mojave Agency Keeps a Clear Tally

Ignorance is not something judges accept as an excuse for inaction. Data on wells and groundwater usage is plentiful in groundwater basins that were subject to water rights lawsuits in past years. The Mojave Water Agency works a basin covering 4,900 square miles of desert spreading west from the intersection of California, Nevada and Arizona. The adjudication of its water was handed down in 1996. Every year since, it has duly reported the number of wells drawing groundwater and their annual “production,” or withdrawal.

For example, Mojave’s report shows that Joe and Sue Harter, proprietors of Harter Farms, in Needles, have 11 agricultural wells and two for domestic use. The Harters took 2,361 acre-feet of water from underneath the desert last year, less than half as much as the 5,234 they pumped in 1990.

Joe Harter’s son, Andrew, who grows pistachios and bermuda grass with his father, said that the 1996 court order requiring well accountability “made us progressive about controlling our use,” he said. “We had to do more with less.” He added, “At the end of the day, we have to have sustainability.” What irritates him is the seemingly constant construction of new housing subdivisions, each of which creates new demand for water. “I think sustainability is the best thing. My problem is they put it on the backs of the farmers.”

Pistachio trees growing on the Harter family's farm in Kern County.

Pistachio trees growing on the Harter family's farm in Kern County. Andrew Harter

In Mojave, an engineering firm was charged with verifying claims about how much everyone had pumped. When there were no records, the firm assembled aerial photos of plantings, and used those to estimate how much water different crops used.

At the time of the court order, there was little consistency about measuring and reporting withdrawals of groundwater in the Mojave Water Agency’s area. An engineering firm was charged with verifying claims about how much had been pumped. When there were no records, the firm assembled aerial photos of plantings, and used those to estimate how much water different crops used. This prompted most users, like the Harters, to begin collecting their own records, often by using flow meters on their wells.

Electricity consumption is a commonly used proxy for groundwater use, said Mojave’s general manager, Tom McCarthy. Water is heavy, and pumping groundwater from depths of dozens or even hundreds of feet is energy intensive. The more electricity used, the more water has been pumped. “We tend to use methods that are tried and true,” he said.

The more depleted basins now have new agencies managing them. In less than two years, they must produce plans for long-term sustainability. Some users may find their pumping sharply restricted. Some may trade their water rather than farming with it. All will need good data.

Tracking Groundwater Use, With or Without a Well Meter

If only it were so simple as checking a water meter. But in truth, much of California's agricultural water use has been off the record. Before the passage of groundwater reform in 2014, few irrigators were required to report – or even measure – how much water they pumped from the ground.

If regulation has started to catch up with groundwater use, technology has been nipping at its heels even longer. Whether through educated guesswork based on what's growing – and for, example, how hot the air has been – to other proxy measures like electrical use for pumping, scientists and water managers have developed a number of direct, and quite indirect, ways of knowing who is using water, and how much.

Common Methods for Measuring Groundwater Supply – and Use

Graphic: Tracking Groundwater Use, With or Without a Well Meter

Sources: Idaho Department of Water Resources; ESRI Earth Imagery; Natural Earth Data

Bill Lane Center for the American West

Newer Measuring Technologies Emerge in Another Desert Water Basin

One manager who has consulted with Mojave is Don Zdeba, the head of the Indian Wells Valley Water District. This district is not far to the north of Mojave, in Ridgecrest, in far eastern Kern County. While Zdeba has carefully studied Mojave’s practices, he says he is exploring newer technologies to manage his system.

Zdeba’s is one of a group of local agencies working with a Stanford University program run by Rosemary Knight, an environmental geophysicist at the School of Earth Sciences. She directs the Center for Groundwater Evaluation and Management, whose goal is to map local aquifers to know how depth and salinity varies, as the first study of Indian Wells showed. They are working with all of the agencies that use water from the Indian Wells basin.

The technology that Stanford’s group is using involves flying a helicopter over the basin while dangling a loop emitting electrical impulses into the ground. This Time-domain Electromagnetic scan (“TEM”) method can help determine the geology of the aquifer and its level of salinity. A Danish firm called Ramboll is developing a data management system and a map of the basin, said Zdeba. Another Danish company, SkyTEM Technologies, provides Ramboll with the data gathered using a method developed in Denmark by Aarhus University, when that country faced a groundwater crisis.

Measuring What Lies Beneath

graphic

Bill Lane Center for the American West


More Accurate Measurement Leads to More Efficient Management

Zdeba said that day-to-day management of the groundwater controlled by the water district is made easier by knowing how much each customer uses. Like McCarthy, he finds that his biggest agricultural users are cooperative, sharing their pumping data. Why? Amidst a groundwater crisis almost two decades ago, a local cooperative formed in the Indian Wells basin and began measuring and sharing their consumption data.

Their two decades of data show that groundwater pumping overall is down 17 percent in the last decade; the biggest agricultural user, Meadowbrook Farms, has cut its annual consumption by nearly a third percent in the same period, from 9,270 acre-feet to 6,387 acre-feet. Mr. Zdeba’s water district used 29 percent less over that period. His big agricultural users, mostly pistachio and alfalfa farmers, have been open and cooperative, he said.

Less cooperative, he said, are small users. “Someone saying: ‘How much are you pumping?’ doesn’t play well with a lot of private well owners.” He added, “The challenge for us locally is [all users] recognizing there’s a need to know who is pumping how much.”

Resistance to Individual Measurements Begins to Fade

What Mr. Zdeba faces with some of the smaller agricultural users in his district is what Eric Averett faced 25 years ago. Averett, the general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, remembers, “there was a hesitancy to share a lot of different types of data. There was more of a private-property mindset, people felt it was confidential, and might affect competitiveness.”

But even before the 2014 passage of SGMA, he said, those attitudes began to change, both because of the brutal five-year drought, and the rise of technologies for remote sensing of groundwater levels. He has been to meetings recently when “landowners have called me every name in the book and accused me of being big government.”But, he said, general acceptance of accounting for water use has spread widely, even as resistance lingers.

Five Years of Drought Underscored Importance of Groundwater

When the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014, California was well into a severe multi-year drought. As of November 2018, 85% of the state is dry or under drought conditions.

Bill Lane Center for the American West

So the transformation in attitudes that began in adjudicated districts in the desert is now spreading to the agricultural heartland of the San Joaquin Valley. Here, the favored method is not meters, but a measurement derived from satellite images. Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo Irrigation Training and Research Center uses the “METRIC” method – originally developed at the University of Idaho – for areas in Kern and Tulare Counties.

The idea is to use high-resolution satellite images of farm fields to pinpoint what crops are using water. Knowing how much water is released into the air (or “transpired”) by a given crop, and combining that with the rate of evaporation from the soil at specific temperatures, lets researchers turn satellite photographs into water-use data. The combination of these two losses of water to the air – from both the plant and the soil – is called “evapotranspiration.”

Accurate Measurement of Water Use Will Often Force Farmers to Cut Back Groundwater Use

This technique accounts for something that simple pumping records can’t measure – the amount of irrigation water from underground that seeps back through the soil and returns to the aquifer. This is commonly known as “recharge,” and mirrors how aquifers refill with water under natural conditions. Kern County farmers, said Dan Howes, an engineer at Cal Poly, said that Kern County’s farmers “know we don’t have enough water to recharge the basin year after year and sustain the groundwater we are pumping.

“The main issue farmers are coming to grips with is we have too much evapotranspiration and not enough water supply,” said Howes. Put another way, too many thirsty plants in too hot a climate use too much water and deplete the aquifer. He added, “once they come to grips with that,” there are only two options — reduce evapotranspiration, perhaps by leaving fields fallow or planting less thirsty crops — or find more surface water. For farmers without surface-water rights, that may be hard.

“California groundwater was a classic tragedy of the commons,” says Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. Now, “the smart farmers are going to get jump on how to manage their water resources under a sustainable set of rules.”

Howes won’t hazard a firm estimate on how much of a cutback in agriculture the groundwater-dependent areas will need, other than to say the cutbacks will be significant. He works with water agencies in Tulare, Fresno, and Merced counties, and the new groundwater authority for the Kern County basin hired him to do a historical review of water use with the years of Landsat images now available. He has over 23 years’ worth of data in the region from Fresno to Bakersfield.

How are the local farmers reacting to the prospect of pumping reductions? “The ones that I’ve talked to with very little surface water, they are very depressed.” But they are realistic. “Some say, ‘I have about 20 years and then I’ll retire and give it up.’” He added, “I’m surprised at how many people I talk to who say, ‘It’s about time this came about. We all knew it was coming.’” Such comments, Howes said, most often come from farmers with rights to surface water.

Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, said, “California groundwater was a classic tragedy of the commons.” Now, “the smart farmers are going to get jump on how to manage their water resources under a sustainable set of rules.”

 

and the west logo

 

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Where California Grows Its Food

A look at the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world.

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Gill Costa

Responding to As California’s Groundwater Free-for-All Ends, Gauging What’s Left

Great review, there is water for all farmers the shift in paradigm stands in water use efficiency one should only turn the water on when plants need irrigation based on allowable depletion and immediately turn irrigation off at field capacity.

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: Dec. 17, 2018

Pollution on the California-Mexico Border, Some Carried by the New River, flows though the region. Some of it wafts through the air that carries factory fumes over Mexico and Calexico, Some rises from fetid garbage dumps. It all does serious harm to the health of local residents. A series of articles show smokestacks, traffic exhaust, dust, and smoke from trash fires, often leave the cities blanketed in hazy air. The pollution is linked to high rates of respiratory illnesses and deaths. The Desert Sun

We Knew the California Snowpack Was Declining. Now We Know How Fast: 79 Percent by the century’s end. As it fades, much less snowmelt can be drawn on to fill huge reservoirs such as Shasta, Oroville and Folsom. All this as the state’s population and farm economy continue to grow. The new reality that will require fundamental changes in the way California and the federal government have operated the state’s water system for nearly 100 years. San Jose Mercury-News

In Sacramento, Two New Decisions on Dividing the Waters. In one, the state’s top water agency decides to send more water to Delta fish populations on the San Joaquin River, angering farmers and cities. In another, the governor defers to the federal government and makes more water available to farmers. Sacramento Bee
Sacramento Bee

A Federal Ultimatum Declared on a Colorado River drought contingency plan. Get it done by January 31, said the Bureau of Reclamation Representative told the seven states negotiating the plan — or we’ll do it for you. California and Arizona are the last states to fall into line. But this plan, when it is final, could be a bridge to another agreement to manage the water world of the Southwest as the climate changes and the water disappears. Also: how to think about the future. Denver Post Cronkite News John Fleck

Big Utilities Plan Power Shutoffs to Avoid Sparking Wildfires, while the experience of the Camp Fire indicates that small local power grids enhance the resilience of areas in the wildland-urban interface. Utility Drive

Should Washington State Breach Dams to Preserve Orcas? The decline of Puget Sound’s orca population has many probable causes: toxins in the water, noise from boats and lack of food. Chinook salmon are its primary food, and salmon runs are feeble, despite tens of millions spent by hydropower authorities to bolster salmon runs. As part of a $1 billion-plus save-the-orca effort, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a $750,000 plan to investigate the impact should four Lower Snake River dams be removed. It drew criticism from the northwest’s congressional Republicans. Idaho Statesman

Articles Worth Reading: Dec. 4, 2018

There’s a Bullseye on the American West, When One Looks at Climate Change and its economic and ecological consequences, according to a recent federal report. The report emphasizes growing water scarcity, wildfires, sea-level rise, and health costs brought on by climate change. Tribal, local, and state governments are working on climate adaptation plans. High Country News Denver Post Arizona Daily Star

The Private Firefighter Industry Grows. In response to worsening fires across the West, demand has increased for private firefighter companies. But private firefighters are not an affordable option for many homeowners. Mountain West News Bureau/Elemental

A Sanitation Crisis at the Border. Water contaminated with sewage could have health impacts in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, whose residents are advocating for water treatment plants and updates to infrastructure. Ticklish relations between the United States and Mexico complicate sewage management policies. NRDC

A Measure to Cut Back Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas Advances. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Liz Cheney, would release around 400,000 acres of federal wilderness study areas in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties to general management, eliminating special protections. Park County commissioners are hoping that the bill will be amended to also release the local McCullough Peaks and High Lakes wilderness study areas to less restrictive management. The Powell Tribune

Recycling Scandal Crosses State Lines. A group of Arizona residents are accused of stealing over $16.1 million from California’s beverage recycling program by bringing in thousands of bottles and cans from Arizona. The CalRecycle program gives California residents an opportunity to earn back a tax added to bottled goods by recycling their bottles and cans at special facilities. This is the first recycling scandal in California to cross state jurisdictions. Arizona Republic

Articles Worth Reading: Nov. 20, 2018

Raging Fires Made California’s Air 60 Times Dirtier than world health standards last week, and more than 10 times worse around the San Francisco Bay area, as smoke from the Camp Fire in Paradise sat on communities 200 miles away. Smoke, not flames, is the deadliest public health risk from wildfires. Bloomberg Grist

As Lake Mead’s Levels Drop, Can Seven States in the Colorado River Basin Agree on a drought contingency plan to share the predicted water shortage? A rebellion by two Arizona agencies may impel the six other states to make decisions on their own. Op-ed articles by the state’s governor and a former Interior Secretary scold the agencies for their intransigence. As Gov. Doug Ducey wrote, “The foundational purpose of a multi-state drought contingency plan is to transition to a drier future….However…demands for water and money to mitigate reductions are growing to insurmountable proportions.” Phoenix New Times Arizona Capitol Times Arizona Republic

Gray Wolves’ Protection Under the Endangered Species Act May Not Last, if a bill just passed by Congress becomes law. The measure ends federal protection from the wolves in the 48 contiguous states. In the Northwest, where wolves are considered endangered in the western two-thirds of Oregon and Washington, state agencies would take over. Environmental groups say the wolves’ recovery goals are not far off, but may not be reached if the federal government bows out. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With The New Approval of An Industrial Solar Facility in the California Desert, and the news that its electricity has already been sold, the state, which is already ahead of its legislated goals for renewable energy development, will give a big boost to the national boom in renewable energy — a national success that will eventually face strong competition from China. Clean Technica Solar Industry Magazine Solar Industry Magazine Time

Their Canadian Cousins Thrive, But the Orcas of Puget Sound Face An Existential Crisis. While they are the most studied whales in the world, they among the most endangered orcas. As the population of Canadian orcas has grown by 250 percent since 1974, and is at 309, the population of Puget Sound’s pods, now 74, has grown barely nine percent in the same period. Experts blame the impact of the expanding human and industrial presence in the orcas’ range. The three southern pods have not successfully reproduced in three years. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has put together a task force on recovering the whales. Seattle Times

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

Graphics & the West

 

Recent Center News

Jan 15 2019 | ... & the West Blog
Unsold beans pile up in the Northwest; Spokane grapples with a toxic legacy; native treaties clash with Wyoming hunting laws; Phoenix plans for more heat; and kids serve on snowflake watch – some of this week’s notable environmental stories.
Jan 10 2019 | Stanford Daily | Topics of the West
“Domestic rural communities are therefore underrepresented at Stanford by a factor of four. And we know that about five percent of Stanford’s undergraduate alumni live in domestic rural places,” writes Thomas Schnaubelt of the Haas Center for Public Service.
Dec 27 2018 | Center News
Together with Stanford Athletics and the West family, we are pleased to announce the successful creation of an endowed memorial fund to permanently commemorate Heather West’s love of the American West.