The Devil Is in the Data: Principles for Ensuring the Success of Groundwater Management

, climate scientist | August 5, 2016, 7:44 am EDT
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During this California drought, half of our water has come from underground. Responsible groundwater management is necessary to ensure water availability in the future.

Recently, new regulations were approved by the California Water Commission governing how the state will evaluate new groundwater sustainability plans, which are required by the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. However, last-minute changes to these regulations created confusion about the transparency of the underlying data and information that will be the basis upon which many local agencies make their management decisions.

When managing reservoirs and rivers, there are visible indicators of the health of our water system. Water managers can literally see the impact of different management strategies and stresses. For instance, bathtub rings around reservoirs indicate declining levels.

When it comes to groundwater, however, there is no way to see declining groundwater tables. Rather, we rely on measurement, monitoring, and modeling to visualize and understand how changing practices and pressures are impacting the water stored underground in a network of aquifers.

Groundwater is also a shared resource, flowing across the boundaries of many local management agencies. Local managers will need to work together to develop a coordinated understanding of the groundwater system in order to effectively manage shared groundwater resources. Therefore, coordinated models and transparent data will be critical to the successful implementation of California’s new groundwater law.

5 principles for ensuring the coordination and transparency of groundwater models

Our new study published in the peer-reviewed journal California Journal of Politics and Policy, entitled The Devil is in the Data: The Role of Science, Data, and Models in California’s Historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, recommends 5 key principles to ensure the coordination and transparency of data management that is at the heart of sound groundwater planning:

  1. Data, including modeling data, are publicly accessible and available electronically.
  2. There are consistent standards for groundwater models.
  3. Data files are available in a spatially explicit format to allow mapping of the information.
  4. Open source tools are available to visualize data and model results across basins.
  5. Best practices are developed around data transparency and communication.

Given the importance of modeling to the success of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, we hope the state will revisit the issue of coordination and transparency of data in groundwater sustainability plan regulations and provide clearer definitions to ensure that all of the principles above are applied.

Take action: participate in the Best Management Practice Survey today

The California Department of Water Resources is currently conducting a Best Management Practice Survey to support the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

You can engage in this process and provide input on which best management practices are the most critical for inclusion in their best management practice guide, which will be released this winter.

Data management and modeling will be a key challenge for many local groundwater sustainability agencies. When managing a shared resource, it is very important to have clarity and consistency across basins and local agencies. Therefore, we would like to suggest that you consider choosing “Data management systems requirements” as an important best management practice in the survey.

In addition, it will be equally important to ensure that interested stakeholders and researchers have access to data being collected and used in groundwater plans. Thus, we also suggest that you consider offering “Stakeholder engagement” as an additional best management practice.

In the long run, if we don’t understand the data, then we will not be able to understand or sustainably manage the shared groundwater resources that so many of us rely upon.

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  • Thinking Woman

    In seeking to correlate the effect of groundwater withdrawal and stream diversion in fractured rock aquifers in the forest, I have been stonewalled at every turn by the “privacy and security” concerns of the state water board. The moneyed interests do not want solutions just more obfuscation. We need strong laws to defend the environment above and below the land. And we need just enforcement because laws that are not enforced are worse than no laws at all.