Groundwater program on legislative agenda

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The current statewide drought is having broad ramifications. Besides significantly increasing the threat of wildfires, some communities have even endured water shortages.

The consequence is increased attention to water sources, particularly groundwater, which is vital to the Hill. Groundwater provides 100 percent of Pine Cove Water District’s water. Idyllwild Water District has rights to Strawberry Creek water when it is flowing, but Foster Lake has been nearly empty for almost a year, an indication that the District has been diverting little or no stream flow. Fern Valley Water District accesses stream flow and has wells. In April nearly half of its water supply came from its wells.

The focus on groundwater will spill into politics for the duration of the drought. In March, the Town Crier reported on several hearings in the state legislature. At the end of April, the State’s Department of Water Resources submitted its “Drought Response: Groundwater Basins with Potential Water Shortages and Gaps in Groundwater Monitoring.”

This month the California Water Foundation issued its “Recommendations for Sustainable Groundwater Management.” The Report was prepared at the request of Gov. Edmund Brown’s administration. Enactment of new legislation regulating California’s groundwater will have some effect on the management of the Hill’s water resources, which is the reason for these articles.

The fundamental view circulating through Sacramento and the state’s think tanks as stated in the CWF Report is that “Groundwater is a critical component of California’s water system and its sustainable management is vital to present and future generations.” And the intent of the report is to “…to ignite effective change in the way we view and manage groundwater as part of California’s overall water supply portfolio,” said Lester Snow, executive director of CWF.

With groundwater levels in many areas at historic lows, water experts are concerned about its continuing depletion and long-term consequences. Not only are officials worried about adequate future water supplies, but some scientists are arguing that diminishing groundwater supplies increases earthquake probabilities.

Regardless of the cause, declining groundwater levels and increasing overdrafts of this resource are not fabrications throughout the state. The solution according to many is stated in the CWF report: “… a consistent, statewide approach for sustainable groundwater management.”

The CWF developed seven recommendations (see accompanying table) that would effectively establish a groundwater management regime similar to the State’s century-old policy of surface water management.

One of these recommendations is the establishment of local groundwater management entities. These are necessarily existing water districts. As the report states, “local jurisdiction is fragmented among different entities and does not correspond well to natural groundwater boundaries.”

Other recommendations include empowering these new agencies with authorities ranging from monitoring groundwater and collecting data to enforcing rules on its use, allocation and pumping. Funding from both state and local sources, to enable them to carryout their responsibilities is recommended.

Groundwater is a major source of water for the Hill and the predominant source in drought periods. But the groundwater here is not captured and stored in aquifers as occurs in the desert and other valleys.

The CWF report alludes to the local geological condition of fractured rocks only twice. Some of the participants in the CWF investigated identified that “[t]he treatment of fractured rock aquifers that have different physical characteristics from alluvial aquifers and require different management approaches.”

While the authors seek statewide uniformity, they acknowledge that “… a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not desirable.”

After new legislation is enacted, CWF recommends that local groundwater management entities be established within two years and groundwater management plans be developed within four to five years. Implementation of the plans’ recommendations should occur within the next 15 years.

However, the Report’s authors recognize that the number of local groundwater entities would be so great that financial resources would not be available for all of them. So they recommended focus on the high priority areas based on criteria from the Department of Water Resources.

Given the extent of groundwater usage on the Hill and whether water districts in the Santa Ana basin will seek some say in the water coming off the Hill, it is unclear what priority of local ground water would be if such legislation is enacted.

California Water Foundation’s recommendation for a statewide groundwater management policy

  1. Adopt a definition of “sustainable groundwater management.”
  2. Develop a statewide program that establishes a system of prioritization for all subbasins.
  3. Establish local groundwater management entities (LGMEs).
  4. Provide LGMEs with tools and authorities to achieve sustainability.
  5. Require LGMEs to develop management plans with benchmarks and milestones.
  6. Establish a clear and coordinated state role for assistance, oversight, and enforcement.
  7. Provide funding for groundwater management.
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