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The Key to Saving California’s Groundwater

California made a big step in 2014 by passing a law to manage groundwater. We talk with Michael Kiparsky, the director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, about the challenges of implementing that law.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Dennis Hall, left, and Micha Berry from the city of Fresno's water division, repair a well's pump in Fresno, Calif. Fresno, which has for decades relied exclusively on groundwater as a drinking water source for its residents, is one of many water users throughout central California that have seen a drop in their water table, causing some wells to bring up sand, slow to a trickle or go completely dry.Gosia Wozniacka, AP

For years California was behind the curve on managing groundwater, with dire results. There are now 21 groundwater basins or subbasins in the state that are critically overdrafted. Help may be on the way, though. The state took action in 2014 with the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The legislation will take decades to fully implement, but if done well, would provide a crucial framework for managing one of the state’s most important water resources.

If things go poorly, however, then California is set to continue on a course of overdrafting groundwater basins, resulting in land subsidence, saltwater intrusion and water quality problems.

Michael Kiparsky, the director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, coauthored a recent report outlining the need for good governance in laying the foundation for SGMA.

The report calls SGMA “a grand experiment in the design of institutions for groundwater governance.” But it also highlights the great potential of SGMA to “transform the state from having a system of groundwater management that is among the most deficient in the country to having a set of locally inclusive governance systems that will achieve long-term groundwater sustainability.”

Water Deeply talked with Kiparsky about the challenges and opportunities that SGMA presents, and why it is so crucial that California gets this right.

Water Deeply: Before we get into the details of SGMA, is it too late for California to manage its groundwater sustainably?

Michael Kiparsky: In some places, no, as long as the local entities who are tasked with implementing the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act decide to move quickly and intelligently and creatively in order to implement aggressive changes in how they manage the finite, common-pool resource that groundwater is.

Water Deeply: The first challenge in doing this is the establishment of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), right?

Kiparsky: That’s right. The first phase of SGMA implementation that we are in now in is all about creating new institutions. The local entities that are going to be tasked with achieving groundwater sustainability in these basins, the GSAs, are in the process in many places of deciding whether and how they will form themselves and declare themselves to be GSAs.

This is an essential period of institutional design to develop the basis for the governance of the groundwater basins. In our view, it’s an extraordinarily important time.

Water Deeply: It seems like there is a lot that can be challenging here, especially when you have multiple entities overlying a groundwater basin. What are the risks?

Kiparsky: One of the things that could go wrong is that it’s entirely possible that many of these agencies could end up being paper tigers without the ability to do what it’s going to take to achieve sustainability.

There is no shortage of motivation or talent to make agencies work. However, the challenges are extraordinarily complex and unprecedented. California has historically been a leader in many types of environmental management, but groundwater has been an exception to that rule. Without a statewide framework for managing this resource, there has been, in many cases, a tragedy of the commons.

For the first time in many places, these basins will be facing the need, collectively, to reduce the use of a resource that has, to this point, been more or less unrestricted. And any time you take any resource and reduce access to it, it is likely to create the potential for conflict.

GSAs will face challenges figuring out how to curtail pumping by the right amount and in the right ways for the basin, and how to allocate that reduction among the existing users. What exacerbates that challenge is that the agencies will be responsible for figuring out a way to fund their efforts to do this.

That will involve asking people in the basins to pay to be regulated, which is typically not a very popular ask of someone.

Water Deeply: What things do we need to think about to form successful GSAs?

Kiparsky: If GSAs are to succeed, they need to be both effective and fair. They also need the authority and capacity to actually get things done and the funding to do it. Even the best plan won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on if the agency is not capable of actually implementing it.

One of the things GSAs need to develop is expertise, which would include the ability to conduct the modeling to understand a resource that is difficult to observe directly and needs to be understood through data analysis, modeling and monitoring, and needs to be evaluated on an ongoing basis.

Water Deeply: Is there a good sense about what sustainability means and what these GSAs need to achieve?

Kiparsky: In fact, yes. It defines sustainability as the avoidance of six undesirable results. Those six results are, first, the lowering of groundwater levels. Second, reductions in groundwater storage. Third, impacts on water quality. Fourth, saltwater intrusion from seawater. Fifth, subsidence of the land surface. And finally, impacts on interconnected surface waters.

The definition of sustainability is avoiding those six things. How to operationalize that in detail remains to be seen. There are no quantitative targets that are attached to these undesirable results either in the law itself or in the emergency regulations for groundwater sustainability plans that were just passed.

So, while these are a visionary set of targets to reach for in concept, it is tempered by the fact that it is not yet clear what exactly it means to avoid these undesirable results in a measurable way.

It argues again for the need for GSAs that are both strong and independent, and technically sophisticated enough to make good judgments about how these elements of sustainability will be operationalized.

Water Deeply: Getting beyond the formation of GSAs, what other challenges do you see down the line with SGMA?

Kiparsky: If we form GSAs and they are great at managing sustainability, then problem solved. But I think there is a tremendous number of challenges and unknowns and some of them relate to legal questions.

One of the unanswered questions involves impacts on interconnected surface waters and the relationship between groundwater and surface water. SGMA is going to become an exercise in trying to understand how to manage for both benefits we get from surface water and the uses that people want to make of groundwater.

Water Deeply: What are the opportunities that could come out of this?

Kiparsky: SGMA presents a tremendous opportunity for innovation. There is more than one way to think about how to bring a groundwater basin’s water budget into balance. One is to pump less groundwater. The other is to find a way to bring other sources of water into the basin to augment that supply to help recharge aquifers directly or to use in place of water demands that were otherwise satisfied by groundwater.

One example is something that is actually happening right now in the Pajaro Valley, where they have implemented a policy called Recharge Net Metering. The groundwater agency in the valley will refund the pumping fees it charges groundwater users in the basin when those users put projects in place that return excess stormwater into the basin during the winter.

It’s one example of a mechanism to incentivize innovative projects like greater stormwater recharge. I’m looking forward to seeing whether SGMA can spur more of these type of things.

Water Deeply: How important is getting SGMA right for our water future in California?

Michael Kiparsky: Simply put, it’s essential. Although it’s not as visible as California’s rivers, groundwater provides about a third to half of the state’s water supply and it is particularly essential during droughts like the current one.

If California does not figure this out, then what we are essentially doing is making a choice to use a resource now at the expense of our children’s and grandchildren’s ability to enjoy the range of benefits that the resource provides to us.

This type of concern for the future is something that is implicit in SGMA and it’s one of the beacons of hope for California’s long-term water security and sustainability.

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