February 1, 2012 - From the February, 2012 issue

Groundwater Management in California Needs Better Monitoring and Regulation

TPR is pleased to present the following excerpt from a panel, ‘Groundwater Management: Advancing Quality and Quantity’ at the Future of Water in Southern California conference in Los Angeles. M. Rhead Enion, a fellow in environmental law and policy at UCLA, offers a comparative view of the condition of groundwater management in California today and what steps the state may take to improve regulatory mechanisms and mitigate looming challenges.

“If you take water out of the groundwater basin, it’s likely that you’ll decrease surface flows. So it’s really hard to regulate one without the other.”

M. Rhead Enion (Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy, UCLA School of Law): I want to start with a summary of the important characteristics of groundwater, and then I’ll compare and contrast the management scheme in California compared to elsewhere. Then discussing next steps, I want to talk about conjunctive use and where we can go with that.

Ground water and surface water are a connected single functional system in almost all cases. It’s really important to recognize that any time you add groundwater into the groundwater basin, you’re going to affect the surface water. If you take water out of the groundwater basin, it’s likely, depending on the basin, that you’ll decrease surface flows. So it’s really hard to regulate one without the other. And the same goes for pollution. If you have a pollution problem in a groundwater basin, that tends to bring additional problems to surface water. Any kind of other pollution tends to flow between one and another. 

Of course groundwater basins can act as filtration devices, to a certain extent. That depends on having enough water to serve that function. You need a certain capacity in order to filter these types of pollutants, nutrients, and salinity. Salinity means nothing more than having not enough water to the amount of salt. To deal with that problem you need to either take out the salt or you need more water in the system. 

Another issue with groundwater: when you take water out of the basin, you create these depression zones. As a result, any other neighboring wells will see impacts. You’re not just pulling out water that’s your own, you’re pulling out water that could have been used by neighbors.

Groundwater, we know, is a significant part of the California water supply. Throughout California on an average year we’re using about 30 percent groundwater, and that can go up or down 20 percent or 40 percent. Parts of the Central Valley are 80 percent groundwater for total water use. So it’s a really important part of California’s water supply. 

We’re over drafting water. The estimate is about 12.5 million acre-feet is replenished each year, and 14 million acre-feet are pulled out of groundwater basins. That’s just an estimate. The reason the estimate is pretty big is because we don’t have much of a way of monitoring elevation, groundwater, or groundwater use. 

If you want to do water storage in groundwater cases in California, you should probably know what the elevation is of your groundwater basin, and you should probably know at least the major users of the groundwater. Who’s pulling out the groundwater? Where are the recharge basins? You probably want to avoid placing non-permeable surface areas over your recharge basins, which is a problem in Los Angeles. The whole thing is concrete now; it’s hard to recharge your water basin if it’s a giant parking lot. 

Groundwater storage is a promising approach to even out California’s peak water problems. This is going to become more of a problem in the future. Climate change estimates suggest that you get more water runoff in the winter. It’s going to rain more in the winter and snow less. More water runoff from the mountains in the winter when we don’t need it and much less throughout the late spring and summer. For a lot of California you don’t have a problem of enough water supply—it’s that the water isn’t coming at the right times of year, and it’s not falling in the right locations for where we’re going to use it. There, groundwater storage has a lot of promise as a means to even out the inter-annual flows and intra-annual flows of water. 

The problem is that California, along with Texas, isn’t doing a particularly good job of either monitoring or regulating groundwater. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve fallen behind Texas in this regard. Only California and Texas still allow groundwater use without a permit or any means of tracking or regulating the users. California’s last comprehensive assessment of groundwater overdraft was in the 1980s. This should hopefully change with SBX67, but we’ll see. 


We have local groundwater management plans, but a lot of it is voluntary, and a lot of it is dependent on local resources. We have some great examples out there and not so good examples out there. In the regulation aspect, only California still treats surface water separately from groundwater as a legal matter. This makes it particularly difficult when talking about conjunctive use or groundwater banking because once you put surface water into the ground you don’t own the surface water anymore and there’s no real way to trap it. Orange County is engaged in a very comprehensive groundwater scheme, but they’ve had to do a lot of contracts and assumptions, and basically their ability to control the basin, because they’re a large entity, they can get away with that. As surface water becomes more scarce you’ll see more people turn to groundwater and try to take from groundwater that may have been banked from another entity. I think those conflicts will only increase because the right system for groundwater in California is basically nonexistent. 

What we need is to take some of the good local examples and apply them at a more regional level, on how to monitor groundwater, how to get monitor use and quality. We need monitoring and rights management if we want to do groundwater banking and conjunctive use. 

Texas has implemented groundwater conservation districts. That’s similar to our groundwater management districts. But Texas also has groundwater management areas that cross local district boundaries, and those are there to try to conserve and preserve groundwater. That might be one useful model. Another is Arizona. The Arizona groundwater management code says that any person must have a groundwater permit to pump groundwater legally. Now if Arizona can pull this off and make sure that people have permits to pump groundwater, I think it’s doable in California, despite all the political problems that we’re going to have to face. Some water rights owners in Arizona are exempted, but it’s a step up from what California has now.

One example in California, in the city of Lodi, property owners who have more than one acre have to install water meters. To pay for the water meters, you can do it either in a lump sum, in installment, or you could pay for it as property when you sell the property. That’s an interesting model of how to get people to install water meters while not necessarily having to pay for it all upfront. 

I want to mention quickly the water transfers program, this idea of conjunctive use where a farmer can switch to groundwater in certain years, and thereby conserve surface water for other uses. It’s a great idea, and California’s been doing this for several years now. The problem is that because we don’t net monitor groundwater use, we don’t actually know how much groundwater the farmer uses. We kind of know how much surface water the farmer uses. Instead the farmer has to submit years of historical data on how the farm is operated, what kind of profits there are, and how many acres. Then we estimate the groundwater use that the farmer would use, based on that data. 

It’s a big waste of paperwork. It doesn’t tell you how much groundwater will be used moving forward, and it means a lot of paperwork on the part of the farmer and a lot of regulatory excess on the part of the water district and whoever’s going to run the program. 

At the end of the day, we don’t actually know how much water is being pulled out or if we’re actually saving any water compared to the surface water that’s now being converted for some other use. I’d say this is a program we could use in moving forward. We take the conjunctive use program and we provide certain incentives. If you want the monetary value perhaps you have to install groundwater monitoring, or perhaps you have to report how much groundwater you use on a certain basis. Now that’s not without a lot of political risk and objections, but it’s one example of how we need to be forward thinking of how we can get more monitoring of groundwater in California. Right now we basically have nothing. 


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.