Connecting the Dots: Drought, Climate Change, and Groundwater Regulation

September 16, 2014 | 1:25 pm
Adrienne Alvord
Former Contributor

UCS California Climate Scientist Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith provides this guest blog that celebrates today’s signing of historic California legislation to require regulation of groundwater, and offers some thoughts about the need for climate-resilient water management going forward.

Although California is known as a leader when it comes to climate change, its approach to groundwater has been more reminiscent of the Wild West. Groundwater provides around 60 percent of the state’s water supply in dry years, but it has remained largely unregulated since the Gold Rush era. Today, California took a major leap forward into the 21st century as Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills into law aimed at protecting groundwater for current and future generations.

This year’s record-breaking dry conditions shined a spotlight on the state’s out-dated approach to groundwater. Numerous articles documented a well-drilling spree, as rivers and canals dried up and as declining groundwater tables led many to sink ever-deeper wells. In parts of the Central Valley, the loss of groundwater is so great that it has altered the gravitational pull of the earth, as measured by satellites circling the globe. And as droughts are expected to become more frequent in a warming world, sustainable groundwater management is increasingly important.

Until now, California was the only state in the Western U.S. that did not comprehensively monitor or regulate groundwater. Today, the Governor signed Senate Bill 1168 (Pavley) and Assembly Bill 1739 (Dickinson), which start the process of creating a statewide system to manage groundwater. These policies require local groundwater management entities to be formed by 2017 and to adopt groundwater sustainability plans by 2020. Importantly, groundwater management entities must also measure groundwater use and report groundwater levels to the state. If a groundwater sustainability plan is not adequate or does not address long-term groundwater declines, the State Water Board can step in to ensure sustainable groundwater management.

While many will see these as common-sense measures, the opposition against these bills was fierce. Simply put, sustainable groundwater management threatens those who are benefiting from the current free-for-all. Until very recently, any mention of comprehensive groundwater monitoring or measurement in California was met with cynical sneers. Indeed, there have been numerous attempts to modernize California’s approach to groundwater over the decades, starting with the Governor’s Commission to Review Water Rights Law in 1978, which recommended a more comprehensive approach to groundwater management.

A generation later, the groundwater crisis has reached epic proportions and the state is finally stepping up to the plate, thanks in no small part to Senator Pavley, Assemblymember Dickinson, and the valiant efforts of many farmers, water agencies, academics and experts, foundations, community-based organizations, and environmental organizations who worked together to turn the tides.

While there is much to celebrate, there is also much more work to be done. In the coming years, local groundwater management entities will need to determine how to reach a sustainable water yield by 2040. Scientists, community members, and other stakeholders will need to work together to make sure that local groundwater sustainability plans are science-based, address climate change, and protect our water resources for the future. Let’s get to work!