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, Madison Pobis, Sierra Garcia and Danielle Nguyen

Articles Worth Reading: November 18, 2019

Mining Expansion Poses Risks for a Colorado Tourist Destination. The town of Glenwood Springs relies on water flows from the Colorado River and subterranean heating to supply its popular hot springs. Denver-based mining company Rocky Mountain Resources acquired a nearby limestone quarry in 2016. Now the firm has proposed plans to expand from 20 acres to more than 450 over the next few decades. Several surrounding towns, including Glenwood Springs — a bedroom community for ski resorts — have passed resolutions opposing the expansion, citing impacts of dust, traffic, and impacts on water (read our recent report from Garfield County, Colorado). The Bureau of Land Management has not yet decided whether or not to allow it. The Denver Post

Caribou Take Home the Gold for Long-Distance Migrations. A recent study confirmed the widely cited evidence that caribou are the mammals that routinely make the longest migrations over land. Over the course of a year, caribou will travel as much as 840 miles. The New York Times

Bird Rehabilitators Seek to Ban Lead Ammunition after seeing the devastating impacts of lead toxicity in raptors like Wyoming’s golden eagles. Lead bullets shatter easily upon impact, which means that birds feeding on prey that have been shot can ingest the toxic substance and suffer severe impacts to the brain and nervous system. Many hunters are resistant to the transition because lead-free ammunition tends to be more expensive and less-suited to certain styles of hunting. WyoFile

Dry Lakes are Kicking Up Dust Throughout the West and prompting air quality officials to consider legal action. The Salton Sea in California’s Imperial County and the Utah Great Salt Lake are two of the largest contributors to dust in the wake of increasingly dry conditions. Dust in the air clogs lungs and airways and carries with it toxic compounds from agricultural sources. Bitterroot

Mountains Could Act as Batteries for Storing Gravitational Potential Energy according to new research. As western states work to meet their renewable energy goals, lithium-ion batteries often fall short when it comes to storing energy from solar or wind for more than a few hours. But by using a contraption similar to a ski lift to hoist sand up mountainsides, gravitational potential energy is stored and ready to generate electricity once the material falls down again. The system would increase the time and scale of energy storage while avoiding the drawbacks of hydropower storage, like evaporation. Utility Dive

Articles Worth Reading: November 5, 2019

Devastating Sea Urchin Invasion is Spreading to the Oregon Coast and wreaking havoc on abalone fisheries. Rapacious purple urchins have decimated California’s kelp ecosystems in recent years, and new estimates suggest that as many as 350 million of the spiny critters were latching onto a single Oregon reef — a 10,000 percent increase over the 2014 numbers. “You can't just go out and smash them. There's too many,” says Scott Groth, a shellfish scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Conservationists and other stakeholders are hoping to combat the issue by paying divers to remove the urchins by hand so they can be farmed for their meaty roe. Associated Press

Lasers, LiDAR, and Drones Can Detect Methane Leaks that contribute to global warming and cost the oil and gas industry as much as $30 billion per year. Tech entrepreneurs in Colorado are working to design monitoring systems that are rugged enough to be left unattended in the oil fields forlong periods but accurate enough to identify even small leaks. Yale Environment 360

The Wild Population of California Condors is Well on its Way to Recovery. There are now more than 300 condors throughout the Southwest thanks to an aggressive breeding program and a ban on lead ammunition put into effect in July. Scientists are finding that an abundance of marine mammals contributes to healthier chicks. Soon the population will reach the goals originally set for the species in the 1996 plans Hakai

New Law Requires Texas Homeowners to Disclose Flooding Risk to potential buyers in the wake of damage from Hurricane Harvey. The new law means that buyers are more informed about flood history and risk, but properties in floodplain areas may have more difficulty selling. Surveys suggest that more than 74 percent of Americans are in favor of a disclosure law that can help buyers decide whether or not to purchase a home or seek flood insurance. NPR

Navajo Woman Reflects on the Importance of her Grandmother’s Weaving. Melanie Yazzie remembers holding yarn between her feet as her grandmother wove traditional rugs in their home in Arizona. Now a printmaker and educator, she draws from her memories of her grandmother to find purpose in her work. The piece begins at the podcast’s 11:41 mark. The Moth Podcast

Articles Worth Reading: October 22, 2019

Greater-Sage Grouse Populations Stand a Better Chance, thanks to a new court ruling that found a lack of acceptable scientific support for the Trump administration’s rollback of protections on more than 9 million acres of the bird’s habitat in states like Wyoming and Oregon. The rollback in March was an effort to lease prime land for oil and gas drilling projects. This week’s court ruling, in which the judge wrote, “When the [Bureau of Land Management] substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification,” is a win for conservation groups suing to get the plans thrown out. The sage grouse has already lost some 90 percent of its historic numbers. Audubon

Colorado Cannabis Growers Are Becoming More Energy-Efficient by taking advantage of sustainable investments in technology. Carbon emissions are rising with the expansion of the legal marijuana industry because indoor growing operations rely on huge amounts of electricity to power cooling and lighting equipment. Creative design systems and a rigorous energy offset program are helping to keep the state on track for its efficiency goals in the next few years. The Denver Post

Shellfish Farming Permit Thrown Out Due to Concerns for the Marine Environment in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge found the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t properly analyze the environmental impact of aquaculture farms. The industry takes in nearly $150 million per year in Washington state, the hub of shellfish aquaculture. Critics said the original permit doesn’t account for potential damage from microplastics, herbicides, and tideland conversion. The Seattle Times

Ecologists Lobby for Wildlife-Friendly Highway Crossings Along the Border With Mexico. Mexico’s Highway 2 intersects a wildlife corridor that could be used by populations of endangered species like jaguars, ocelots, and black bears traveling between Arizona and Sonora. Wildlands Network is pushing for additions to highway construction that would direct animals to safe crossings and maximize their chances of survival during dangerous travel. ASU Cronkite News/Arizona PBS

Wild Burros Aren’t All Bad for the Death Valley Ecosystem according to ongoing research. Yes, the donkeys compete for resources with the park’s native species, but they may also serve other beneficial purposes. By digging wells in dry streambeds, they create small water sources for insects and amphibians and help struggling tree species germinate. The default option is to round up and remove the burros, but there may be unintended consequences for the complex desert ecosystem. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: October 7, 2019

California Fisherman Are Repeatedly Catching and Releasing Protected Great White Sharks Without Consequences due to cloudy language in the law. Although state regulations strictly prohibit killing a Great White, it’s almost impossible to prosecute because anglers can claim the catches were accidental. Changing ocean conditions mean that more of the animals are sticking around in Southern California, spurring advocates to call for heftier penalties for illegal takes. Hakai Magazine

More Than 80,000 Wild Horses Ended up in Foreign Slaughterhouses Last Year even though killing horses for food is illegal in in the U.S. “Kill buyers” say that exporting to Canada and Mexico decreases the exploding population and helps feed the world, but animal rights activists say that the Bureau of Land Management can do more to protect adoptable horses. The New Food Economy

The Western Rivers Conservancy Conserves Vital River Habitat by Purchasing Land and partnering with local managers. The recent acquisition of old-growth forest surrounding the Blue Creek watershed marks a 10-year effort to preserve critical salmon streams. The organization has purchased and conserved an estimated 175,000 acres of riparian habitat since its founding three decades ago. The acquisitions are handed over to stewards who are expected to implement long-term conservation management plans and make the lands more accessible to the public. Modern Conservationist

The Right of Personhood for the Klamath River Means It Can Bring Cases in Tribal Court, opening up avenues for legal advocacy and shifting the conversation around indigenous knowledge. The move follows a precedent set by New Zealand tribes and an international indigenous movement called Rights of Nature. Although no case has yet been brought to court, the Yurok Tribe’s resolution means that issues like pollution, diseased fish, and even climate change can now be addressed through tribal court. High Country News

A Small Alaska Town Is Slowly Being Consumed by Rusting Cars along with refrigerators, forks, shoes, and everything else imported by plane and boat. With limited options for removing waste once it arrives, Bethel’s citizens instead create graveyards of junk and spare parts. Native Yup’ik Elder Esther Green says that the abandoned cars are more than an eyesore — they’re a disturbance to their native land. “Everything around us has ears, and they can see and they can feel. Just like us human beings.” 99 Percent Invisible Podcast

Articles Worth Reading: September 23, 2019

Las Vegas is Thirsty for Snake Valley Groundwater even though there is not enough now for key wetlands and springs in this semi-arid region on the Utah-Nevada border, a U.S. Geological Survey study shows. There is certainly not enough to send the Las Vegas area, 250 miles to the south, as much as it wants. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, a regional wholesaler that serves Las Vegas, has applied for an additional 50,680 acre-feet of water per year, which would almost double the current volume of permitted withdrawals of 55,272 acre-feet per year. Circle of Blue

While Seeking Montana Land to Restore Biodiversity, a biologist made friends in Silicon Valley and enemies on the short-grass prairie. The American Prairie Reserve’s strategy was buying land from ranchers who had been struggling economically. After raising $156 million, mostly from Silicon Valley, buying 400,000 acres of land, and reintroducing 800 bison, the group is now a pariah locally. As one rancher said, “their media blitz was 'You guys have been doing it wrong all your lives, and we're about to buy you all up because you're all broke…They came in and insulted the culture and said, we're going to replace you all with bison." Sierra Magazine

From Monterey Bay to the Canadian Border, the Coast Would Become Protected Orca Habitat under a new federal proposal. If it becomes final, the area would be a massive expansion of the ocean area deemed critical for the survival of the killer whales of the Puget Sound. Their hunting ground extends from Southern California to the Salish Sea, but the fish they eat are disappearing, scientists have found, noting that the habitats where people have made major changes are the same ones feeling the extreme effects of climate change. The new area would begin just south of Santa Cruz and would include about 15,626 square miles. Seattle Times

Alaska Summer Heat Means Disappearing Water and Worries about the future. Residents of the Native village of Nanwalek on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage are suffering from a severe drought and working hard to conserve their freshwater. Last month, town officials decided to shut off the taps for 12 hours every night. Nanwalek was one of six communities suffering water shortages during the unusually hot summer. The village, home to the Sugpiaq tribe, is trying to find funds to purchase a reverse osmosis machine to desalinate sea water. Npr

Duck Fat Is for Gentrified City Dwellers. Bear Fat is for Lovers of the Wild. Pastries using bear fat get rave reviews, one hunter-cook says. But the old habit of using bear fat has languished because the quality of the fat depends on what the bears eat – and many eat mostly human garbage. From baking to curing baldness to predicting the weather, the many uses of bear fat over the centuries, and the way the creation of the teddy bear curbed human appetites for bear fat. Atlas Obscura

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See 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. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Nov 18 2019 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
A mining expansion threatens a Colorado town; dried up lakes are stirring up trouble for western states; harnessing gravity for energy storage; and other environmental news from around the West.
Nov 11 2019 | Center News, Happenings, ArtsWest
A curatorial tour of a new Cantor Arts Center exhibition gave audiences a glimpse of iconic Western photographs.
Nov 1 2019 | Stanford News Service | Center News, Research Notes
The new normal for Western wildfires is abnormal, with increasingly bigger and more destructive blazes. Understanding the risks can help communities avert disaster.