In summary

As climate change intensifies California’s drought, the Department of Water Resources needs to step up both roles of regulator and coach. If the state approves local groundwater management plans that aren’t sustainable, more wells will go dry, people will lose water, wetlands will wither, and animals will die.

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By Samantha Arthur

Samantha Arthur is the working lands program director at Audubon California and serves on the Groundwater Leadership Forum.

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Ngodoo Atume, Special to CalMatters

Ngodoo Atume is a water policy analyst at Clean Water Action and serves on the Groundwater Leadership Forum.

Over the past decade, California has gone from being the state with the least groundwater regulation to adopting a law that serves as an international model. How the state implements its landmark groundwater law during California’s worst drought on record could inform global climate change adaptation practices for generations. 

The Golden State has one shot over the course of the next 20 years to bring its depleted aquifers into balance and achieve sustainability. Californians are counting on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to get the state there.

Carrying out the act, however, isn’t easy. While many honest actors at the state and local level want the new regulation to succeed, the law calls for undoing a century of unsustainable groundwater pumping. The forces that helped create the problem still stand in the way of reforming it. 

The groundwater act requires more than 260 local agencies to draft sustainability plans that describe a process for balancing groundwater extraction with aquifer replenishment over 20 years. Approximately 107 plans have been submitted to the California Department of Water Resources. The department scrutinizes each local plan and can reject those that fail to complete the assignment. Rejected plans are placed under control of the State Water Resources Control Board, which manages water quality and environmental protection. 

Earlier this year, the department approved eight local plans and marked 35 incomplete, requiring revisions and resubmission. The department also guides local agencies on the technical aspects of maintaining water supply for their communities and ecosystems. 

As climate change intensifies the drought and California prepares for years without snow, the Department of Water Resources needs to step up both roles of referee and coach. If the state approves sustainability plans that aren’t actually sustainable, more wells will go dry, people will lose water, wetlands will wither, and animals will die.

To help get the state on track, the Groundwater Leadership Forum, a coalition of environmental and social justice organizations, have evaluated local groundwater sustainability plans. Of the 95 plans submitted to the state that we have analyzed, more than half have failed to prepare for a sustained drought. 

The department needs to update its drought projections and hold local agencies accountable for following them. Heavy pumping reduces groundwater below levels needed to sustain communities and ecosystems. Water crises are occurring more often: Approximately 900 household wells have gone dry this year — 250 in the last month, occasionally leaving residents without drinking water in places such as Tulare, Fresno and Tehama counties. 

Many groundwater sustainability plans submitted to the state failed to compare the projected decline of regional water tables with the depth of wells in affected communities. Plans also failed to mention what actions would be taken to keep water flowing in these communities. 

The same problem applies to ecosystems: A majority of the plans in our analysis lacked a process for reducing pumping levels near rivers and wetlands. Over the past half-century, bird populations across North America have declined by one-third, largely due to loss of suitable habitat. In the Central Valley, more than 90% of natural wetlands have been replaced by farmland and other human development. The remaining habitats have become biological stepping stones for migrating birds and vital hotspots that support threatened and endangered species, such as giant garter snakes and tricolored blackbirds. Allowing these remaining rivers and wetlands to dry up will cause more birds to die, and even risk pushing some species close to extinction. 

Every Californian has a stake in the success of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Collectively, these local plans spell out California’s plan for drought resiliency. The Department of Water Resources must reject plans that fail to sustain water access for people and nature. The department must offer more detailed guidance to help local agencies understand the needs of every user of groundwater within their basin. In this daunting era of hotter and drier weather, resilience can only be achieved through good-faith cooperation between locals and the state.


Read other views on this topic here and here.


Samantha Arthur previously has written about California’s wetlands.

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