& the West

‘When the Well Runs Dry:’ Symposium Addresses the Future of Groundwater Resources

Water may be one of the most critical environmental issues for reporters to cover in years to come, said western water experts and journalists at the 2017 Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford University.

The four symposium panelists
Panelists, from near to far, were Dawn E. Garcia, moderator; Ian James of the the Knight-Risser Prize winning team, Felicity Barringer, and Leon Szeptycki. Photo: Steve Castillo

By Robin Evans

At risk is the future of the world’s major underground aquifers: sources of freshwater found in streams and honeycombs under the earth’s surface. This invisible resource has sustained California through crippling droughts, enabled a way of life on the Great Plains, and is the sole source of water for life and agriculture in many parts of the world. At the symposium on Jan. 25, attendees discussed the future of groundwater supplies and celebrated the awarding of the annual $5,000 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.

“Pumped Dry,” the winning entry in 2016, explores a looming global water crisis due to the dangerous depletion of the world’s largest aquifers. The series was published in print, online, and in documentary form by the Palm Springs-based Desert Sun and its sister publication USA Today. The Sun’s environment reporter Ian James led the reporting in collaboration with the USA Today video journalist Steve Elfers, the data journalist Steve Reilly, and other colleagues at both publications.

 “It’s a very ambitious piece of work about disappearing water supplies in the U.S. and a number of countries,” said James Risser in awarding the prize. “And it’s a testimony to the people who run the Desert Sun to persist with such a project.” Risser is a two-time Pulitzer winning environmental reporter, now retired, for whom the prize is named. Risser was the longtime director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford, which co-administers the Knight-Risser Prize with Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, under the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Reporting on California’s Drought Reveals a Worldwide Problem

James, an Associated Press reporter before joining the Desert Sun in 2013, accepted the 2016 Knight-Risser Prize and described the journey that led to the Desert Sun/USA Today series.

He had written for years about the largely unregulated over-pumping of California’s aquifers, particularly in the ag-heavy Central Valley — in 2014, he earned a judges’ special citation from the Knight-Risser Prize for the series “Aquifer at Risk”. Along the way, he became curious about the health of aquifers globally. He was able to expand the scope of his reporting thanks to data from NASA’s twin GRACE satellites, which monitor glaciers and underground water supplies worldwide by measuring their gravitational mass. Using the GRACE data as a guide to the most critical areas, the reporting team traveled to farms in California and Kansas, and with help from a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, on to Peru, India and Morocco as well. For groundwater in some of these regions, James said, it is “only a matter of time before it’s not usable for agriculture.”

Map of TWS trends

Interviews with scientists and water officials grappling with solutions pointed to an “integrated water management approach,” said James, which views groundwater and surface water supplies (like rivers, aqueducts and reservoirs), as inextricably linked. For example, drawing down aquifers can reduce surface flows. California, which passed landmark groundwater regulation in 2014, is now attempting integrated management that will include monitoring, measuring, and eventually determining how much water can be used, for what purposes and by whom.

“Regulating and limiting pumping is going to be important,” he said. “There will be difficult questions at the community level. In some cases, there may be few or no options but eliminating all of the agriculture.”

In concluding his remarks, James showed the introduction to the hour-long video documentary produced as a companion to the series (Watch the clip). As the NASA and UC Irvine water expert James Famiglietti says in the documentary, “We’ve passed a point we’ve never seen in history before.”

Highlights from the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium Panel

Dawn Garcia, director of the JSK Journalism Fellowships at Stanford, led a panel to discuss the future of groundwater and the role of journalists in covering it. Along with Ian James, the panel included Felicity Barringer, a former national correspondent for the New York Times and lead writer of the Bill Lane Center’s environmental news blog, and Leon Szeptycki, an attorney specializing in water issues and head of Stanford’s Water in the West project.

After Drought, the Prospects for Restoring Groundwater Supplies

Dawn Garcia: How long will it take to get the groundwater back?

Ian James: Recharging is time-consuming and complicated. It requires lot of infrastructure investment.

Leon Szeptycki: I’ve spent a lot of time working on these issues at [ Water in the West]. … The point is this atmospheric river we’re experiencing now could stop at any time and you never know when it’s going start again. We don’t know how severe the next drought will be. We do know it’s likely to be warmer; the best way to act is as if drought is right around the corner.

Steve Castillo

California is lucky to have very porous aquifers so they can be recharged easily. There’s talk of flooding agricultural fields in winter when there is excess water. We put 28 feet of water on one field and the aquifer soaked it up. At the same time, in key places where overdraft is most acute, there’s the question of managing surface and groundwater. It’s going to require changes in infrastructure. If we do it, California can have very stable water future – give or take 24 years.

Garcia: Is planting a walnut orchard an example of poor use of water for agriculture?

Szeptycki: Agriculture has gotten a bad rap in the state as the primary villain. On other hand, the agriculture community is getting smarter about stable water, especially some of more sophisticated farmers. A lot of these folks are really smart business people. They’re going to realize the water might not be there is 20 years, so everyone’s assumption is fewer acres will be planted. We’ll have to sort out who the winners and losers will be. Then there’s buying land and not planting, and sophisticated fallowing.

The Impact of California’s Landmark Groundwater Reforms in 2014

Garcia asked about SGMA, California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Approved in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown, the historic legislation requires the sustainable management of California’s critical groundwater resources, giving power to local cities, counties and water districts who must prepare Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) for medium- and high-priority groundwater basins.

Felicity Barringer speaks

Felicity Barringer: I’m looking at water issues for our new blog. Back when our country was formed, when we the won Revolutionary War, states had to figure out how to govern themselves. So they held the Constitutional Convention. The passage of SGMA is just as revolutionary. And it’s not one nation, but 127 different water districts that need to be managed. Each one has to develop its own constitution. If you think about the politics of doing this – as Leon said, agriculture is usually the villain, but there is also the use by growing municipalities. They need water to build. If another agency that controls water comes in, the county loses power. As this plays out in 127 districts across the state, there’s going to be a lot of sharp debate.

Szeptycki: And there are multiple agencies for each of the 127 water basins that will be petitioning to be the administrator of the GSA (Groundwater Stability Agency). The whole thing could fall apart because of the highly fractured nature of water management already. This could be more of that.

Potential Effect of the Trump Administration

Garcia: How will we be affected if the federal government takes down the GRACE satellites? Will California put up its own?

James: It’s hard to predict what the feds may do, but people in the science community are very worried about funding. But the funding of GRACE seems locked in.

Szeptycki: The federal government has very little authority over water management. Whatever the policies, the Department of the Interior is going to play a critical role for surface water – so I think everyone is on edge about what’s going happen to the Colorado River and Central Valley Water Project.

Barringer: GRACE is getting old and a replacement is on the drawing board. I am worried.

James: California is looking at using aerial imagery. That can be done with aircraft. Just by looking at vegetation, water use can be calculated.

Szeptycki: Yes, technologies are advancing and there are calculations. But there’s really no substitute for the satellites.

Environmental Cost of Wine Industry Growth

Garcia: What’s happening in places like Paso Robles and other wine growing areas? The story notes an explosion of vineyards in the late ‘70s, from 20 to nearly 200 now. That’s something people don’t think about.

Barringer: I’ve met several people there who are just out of luck with wells. People who bought property among the vineyards are now having to truck in water, get long hoses. One of the questions is how to protect the vulnerable. Leon said business people will get it and auto-regulate. My sense is more that they have a short-term view.

Szeptycki: It probably does need to be regulated, though some business people are looking ahead. If you’re planting a tree and you’re smart, you take the long-term view.

James: There will be some very bitter community battles.

Outlook for the Central Valley

Garcia: How is the Central Valley doing? You have stories of people pulling hoses down the street. Some stories are pretty shocking and scary.

James: There is some investment in infrastructure, like running water lines to homes.

Barringer: My impression is that things got so bad for the poor communities in Central Valley that there was recognition you need more than a pump where people can fill buckets. They’re all money questions.

James: There will be difficult decisions about who has to cut back.

Outlook for Groundwater Elsewhere

Garcia: Looking nationally, it’s even scarier for Kansas and other places where food has been grown for years.

Steve Castillo

James: My understanding of the southern High Plains is that the water to restore the aquifer is so minimal, people will have to go to dry land farming – that is, rely on rain. They’ll have to farm less intensively and in larger areas to break even. Some towns may end up with fewer people or just disappear.

Szeptycki: My view is that if you have a good water management system, food production will take care of itself. The issue of food security is much more pressing in other parts of he world than here.

Barringer: One variable in all this: Surface and groundwater are two banks we can draw on. Historically people draw on the aquifer to sell water. It’s not clear who owns it and who has the right to sell. In 2014, farmers in a county in the Sierra Foothills were pulling out a lot of water to sell to the county next door, which was even more depleted. It’s like the bottling company taking water to sell to us. Whose water is it? And will water markets help people conserve?

Szeptycki: The thing about water rights in California is that there is no right to draw on an aquifer till it’s depleted. If it goes to court, they can’t draw beyond a sustainable yield.

James: Debates over exporting water are some of most tense. Australia has gone through a similar period of drought. But they did reapportion water rights. I also think community aquifer management programs in India and Morocco are having some small effects. The idea is to get everyone who uses water to talk about how we can share what we have.

Steve Castillo

Santa Clara County has a successful water management program. They cleaned up sewer water to recharge the aquifer. Stanford doesn’t rely on wells for day-to-day water; it uses Hetch Hetchy or other surface water sources. The aquifer here is pretty stable.

Barringer: Stanford also invested half a billion over the last eight years to totally transform both its energy and water systems. It uses some 30 percent less than it used to.

James: It’s traditionally been the case that people can pump as much as they can pay for. Where I live, it’s very well metered because they have to feed the water back in. But it’s a patchwork.

Barringer: Where metering does happen, it’s more the exception than the rule. SGMA gives the GSA power to meter (locally).


Panelists said other solutions being looked at include impact investing, such water management in Australia. In one example, a new fund by The Nature Conservancy hopes to deliver significant environmental watering to some of Australia’s most precious wetlands. Investors get financial returns through annual water lease entitlements, trading water allocations and the long-term capital appreciation of the fund’s portfolio of water entitlements. When water is scarce, more is made available to agriculture; when it’s abundant, more is made available to wetlands.

Watch Complete Video of the Symposium Panel


For More Information
Read the 2016 Knight-Risser Prize winning series, "Pumped Dry."


The Knight-Risser Prize Symposium seeks to forge collaborative links between environmental research, education, journalism, and policy-making to enrich and support environmental journalism and make environmental research, scholarship and teaching relevant to the real world. The prize and symposium are sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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