2021 California Envirothon
“Water Resources Management: Local Control and Local Solutions”
Current Issue Scenario
California is a land of hydrological extremes, from water-rich mountains of the Southern Cascades and the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to the northern redwood forests to the oak woodlands and riparian forests in the Central Valley, to some of the driest deserts in North America in the South. The existing water infrastructure and management systems reflect these extremes, with massive dams, canals, and pumping stations to store and transfer water, and hundreds of intertwined laws, institutions, and organizations promoting overlapping and sometimes conflicting water interests.
California is once again entering a drought period after two years of minimal rainfall and the consequences may be more severe as the effects of climate change worsen and the real threat of catastrophic wildfires. Some regions are already in the stages of severe or extreme drought. In Butte County, the reservoir behind Oroville Dam has receded and the water level has fallen by hundreds of feet. Dry years exacerbate and magnify disagreements over allocation, management, water rights, and use of California’s water resources. The last drought declaration was in 2014 which was in place for three years. It required cities and water suppliers to reduce consumption, mandated that state agencies cut water use and allowed the state to more quickly transfer water to priority users especially to mitigate the effects of a drought on farmers and the food-supply chain. USDA created emergency loans for farmers in declared drought disaster areas.
Groundwater is a vital source water resource for California. In average years, it provides nearly 40% of the state’s water supply. That number goes up to 45% in dry years and close to 60% in a drought. Moreover, many small- and medium sized communities, such as Lodi and Porterville, are completely dependent on groundwater. A clear indicator of the gap between water supply and water use in California is the extensive and unsustainable overdraft of groundwater, i.e., groundwater extracted beyond the natural recharge rate of the aquifer. Chronic overdraft has led to falling groundwater levels, dry wells, land subsidence, decreased groundwater storage capacity, decreased water quality, and stream depletion.
California’s water system is out of balance. The current water use pattern is unsustainable, and there is a large and growing gap between the water desired and the water made available by nature. Human demands for water in the form of water rights claims, agricultural irrigation, and growing cities, suburbs, and exurbs, greatly exceed, even in wet years, volumes that can be sustainably extracted from natural river flows and groundwater aquifers.
Wetlands and Wildlife
The Central Valley was once a vast mosaic of seasonal and permanent wetlands at the time the first Europeans arrived. The Pacific Flyway is a major north to south flyway for migratory birds from Alaska to Patagonia. The Central Valley is a notable location for migratory birds. What wetlands remain, is now only the backbone of the Pacific Flyway along with flooded agricultural fields which support millions of migrating waterbirds each year. The situation today is dire. More than 90% of wetlands in the Central Valley and throughout California have disappeared beneath tractors and bulldozers. The remaining wetlands are scattered patches across the landscape of agriculture and urban development. Because of the damming of California’s rivers for development, agriculture and flood control, wetlands in the Central Valley are fragmented and disconnected from natural water resources and maintained through applied water. Surface water delivered through a series of aqueducts and canals or groundwater pumped from local wells is applied to shallow ponds to create flooded wetland habitat.
Given the precipitous decline of Central Valley wetlands, reductions in surface and groundwater supplies, and climate change, the State Water Resources Control Board has mandated in-stream flow requirements to provide reasonable protections of beneficial uses and restore and maintain viable populations of fish and wildlife. This entails the protection of habitat and to ensure wetlands and wildlife refuges in the Pacific Flyway are preserved in the scheme of water management fixes.
Major rivers, such as the San Joaquin, have been entirely de-watered. Declines in groundwater levels in some regions have reached a critical stage due to overpumping of groundwater to irrigate crops in dry years to compensate for reduced surface water supplies. It is very common and expensive for farmers and local water districts to drill deeper wells to provide a source of water for agriculture and domestic uses such as drinking water as shallower wells run dry. Declines in groundwater levels in some areas due to overpumping, are measured in hundreds of vertical feet and millions of acre feet.
Upper Watershed Forests and Wet Meadows (The State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests: From Bad to Worse)
The upper watersheds of the Sierra Nevada Mountains provide roughly 60% of California’s domestic water supplies, and are home to the majority of California’s inland native trout species, critical to supporting local and downstream economic livelihoods. However, the Sierra Nevada headwater areas are also one of the most degraded regions throughout this vast landscape, threatening California’s way of live and precious biodiversity. California’s future and well-being depends on healthy upper watersheds, particularly given uncertainty associated with a changing climate, drought, and water scarcity.
To the east of the valley, is the Richard Campbell National Forest, headwaters of the Queens River. Its ecology is diverse and complex. The combination of climate, topography, moisture, and soils, influences the distribution of ecological communities across an elevation gradient from 1,000 to 14,500 feet. Biotic zones range from scrub and chaparral communities at lower elevations, to subalpine forests and alpine wet meadows at the higher elevations. Particular eco-regions follow elevation contours along the length of the range.
The subalpine forest is near 9000 feet in elevation. The climate is cooler with an even shorter growing season due to long, cold, and snowy winters. The marginal conditions make the Sierra Nevada subalpine zone sensitive to environmental changes, such as climate change and pollution. Accumulations of nine feet of snow are typical, however, with increasing tree density and the effects of climate change, the forests consume more water and the snowpack is not as deep as before. Forest thinning can influence the timing of snowmelt and runoff. It is estimated based on average climate suggest that reducing forest cover by 40% of maximum levels across a watershed could increase water yields by about 9%.
Subalpine meadows characterized by meandering streams and floodplains, act like sponges, soaking up snowmelt, filtering it, and releasing it slowly, extending snow melt runoff to rivers, modifying its flow pattern, recharging groundwaters basins, into the dry California summer. Today, many meadow floodplains are channelized and in poor condition due to loss of vegetation, pollution, and scant precipitation due to global warming. Given the connectivity of the natural landscape, this has dire consequences to animal species in the subalpine zone.
Since spring 2008, groundwater levels have dropped to all-time lows and overdraft is worsening in most areas of the state especially in regions such as the southern San Joaquin Valley. There, recent levels are more than 100 feet below previous historic lows. While some recharge occurs in wet years, that recharge is more than offset by pumping in dry and even average years, with over 50 million acre feet being lost over the last half century. While groundwater levels may increase (e.g., 2011 and 2012), they did not fully recover to pre-drought levels.
SGMA requires local water users to bring groundwater use to sustainable levels by the early 2040s. This will have a broad impact on valley agriculture and the regional economy in coming years—likely some permanent idling of farmland.
SGMA provides local agencies with a framework for managing groundwater basins in a sustainable manner. It recognizes that groundwater is most effectively managed at the local level with local solutions, and empowers local agencies to achieve sustainability within 20 years.
- Respects regional differences and provides for a tailored approach to planning
- Establishes minimum standards for sustainable groundwater management
- Improves coordination between land use and groundwater planning
- Provides State technical assistance
- Creates a mechanism for state intervention if, and only if, a local agency is not sustainably managing its groundwater
- Protects water rights
- Overseeing SGMA is the joint responsibility of the State Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board given their statutory and regulatory authorities on water supply and water rights/water quality, respectively.
- If a local agency is not managing its groundwater sustainably, the SGMA directs the State Water Resources Control Board to protect the resource until a local agency can sustainably manage the basin. This is known as the “State Backstop.”
- DWR prioritizes all of the state’s 515 basins based on evaluations on the levels of overdraft.
A local agency, combination of local agencies, or county, may establish a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) as mandated by SGMA.
The GSAs must develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) with measurable objectives and interim milestones that ensure basin sustainability. A basin may be managed by a single GSP or multiple coordinated GSPs. The GSP charts a course to 20-year sustainability in over-tapped basins. To meet the requirements of the SGMA regulations, the plan will include robust stakeholder participation, integrate climate change projections, and address the impacts of overpumping on ecosystems and water quality.
SGMA categorizes and prioritizes groundwater basins as:
- High and Medium Priority Basins: required to develop GSPs.
- High and Medium Basins in Critical Overdraft: must develop GSPs as a high priority
The following state agencies websites provide updates on SGMA:
- CalEPA California Groundwater (www.groundwater.ca.gov)
- Department of Water Resources Groundwater Information Center (www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/)
- State Water Resources Control Board Groundwater Management Program (https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/groundwater/)Groundwater Information and Activities
Groundwater Contamination and Disadvantaged Rural Communities (https://www.communitywatercenter.org) The Human Costs of Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water in
Small towns in the San Joaquin Valley have long suffered the effects of contaminated groundwater supplies or dried up wells when the drought hit. Their wells are tainted by fertilizers (nitrates), leaky septic systems, legacy contaminates such as nitrates, when dairies were once widespread throughout the valley, and decades old pesticide residues.
Children are taught not to drink from the tap or even to bathe in it. The water is unusable for a variety of household needs such as laundry and dishwashing. Many families here living below the poverty line are forced to spend up to 10% of their income on bottled water. Water is sometimes delivered in big tanks to allow households to shower and do laundry but not much else. But many have not given up despite the misery of living without water in their home.
SGMA won’t protect the groundwater supply for another two decades and treating the contamination by building drinking water treatment plants is too costly for these small disadvantaged communities. In addition, there are disagreements in the community on needs, political in-fighting, neglect by water districts, and the difficulty of applying for or even their eligibility for construction funding. The water treatment idea has run aground time and again. Many consider river water instead of groundwater as perhaps the most elegant long-term solution to the chronic contamination.
One irrigation district is considering a plan to deliver about 23,000 acre feet. The water would come as excess river runoff from wet winters. The runoff would be spread and allowed to percolate into groundwater holding basins. The communities would benefit from a newly recharged aquifer to supply safe drinking water as well as the farmers for crop irrigation and raising livestock.
Decision Making and Planning Tools
Department of Water Resources Flood-MAR (www.water.ca.gov/Programs/All-Programs/Flood-MAR)
Flood-MAR is an integrated and voluntary resource management strategy using floodwater generated by rainfall or snowmelt to recharge groundwater aquifers on agricultural lands, working landscapes, and managed natural landscapes (such as wildlife refuges), floodplains, and flood bypasses. It can be implemented on a wide scale level from individual landowners to using extensive detention/recharge areas. It presents an opportunity to modernize water management infrastructure and State policies to recognize the nexus between flood management, landuse, groundwater management, and ecosystem management. With the passage of SGMA, it becomes an important part of California’s portfolio of water resources management sustainability and climate resiliency.
Project Prioritization Tool (PPT) (https://farmland.org/project-prioritization-tool/)
The PPT is a conservation decision-making tool to increase the adoption of water infiltration practices, improve groundwater recharge, and protect agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley. It was developed by the American Farmland Trust and the Conservation Biology Institute. Stakeholders can use the PPT to select and support projects that have the greatest potential to effectively infiltrate and conserve water. It allows stakeholders to identify and prepare priority agricultural land acquisition and technical assistance projects, while supporting land use planning decision making. The PPT consolidates relevant and public information to identify and protect the most productive, resilient, and versatile farmland in California. The interactive and modular mapping platform provides users with a default “start-up map” that has layers dedicated to farmland quality, development threat level, crops, and water resources among other data.
The tool can be used at a high level to evaluate regional trends or can be zoomed in to see characteristics of an individual parcel of land. The PPT is well suited for a first level of review for farmland protection and stewardship practices, as well as other valuable functions.
Soil Agricultural Groundwater Banking Index (SAGBI) (Soil suitability index identifies potential areas for groundwater …)
SAGBI provides a composite evaluation of soil suitability to accommodate groundwater recharge while maintaining healthy soils, crops, and a clean groundwater supply. The SAGBI is based on five major factors which are critical to successful agricultural groundwater banking: deep percolation, root zone residence time, topography, chemical limitations, and soil surface condition.
The index provides guidance about the locations where groundwater recharge on agricultural land is likely to be feasible. A variety of institutional, infrastructure and other issues must also be addressed before this practice can be widely implemented.
The San Joaquin Valley —California’s largest agricultural region and an important contributor to the food supply of the nation and globally—is ground zero for many of the most difficult water resources management problems: groundwater overdraft, drinking water contamination, water quality and supply, and declines in habitat and native species.
Local water supplies are limited, particularly in the southern half of the region. To irrigate their crops, many farmers use water imported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This has created a build of salts in the soil through application of irrigation water. But in many places farmers have also increasingly relied on groundwater—pumping groundwater in excess of the rate at which it is replenished thereby creating serious overdraft. Worsening droughts, increasing regulations to protect endangered native fishes, and growing demand by Southern California for Delta water imports, have compounded surface water scarcity.
The multi-generational farmers in the Tres Puntos Arroyo (TPA) watershed in the southern San Joaquin Valley, produce almonds, pistachios, grapes, stone fruit, processing tomatoes, cotton, and field crops on approximately 10,000 acres. There are approximately 5,000 small farms. The TPA watershed represents a microcosm of the water resources management problems found in the San Joaquin Valley.
The TPA is a tributary to the Queens River. The Queens River flows through the valley floor from its headwaters high in the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The Queens River floodplain is known to experience 50 to 100 year flood events, however, with the phenomenal atmospheric rivers, the most recent one was considered a 300 year event.
Downstream is the Alberto Dam and reservoir (Victoria Lake). Below the dam, lays the floodplain which once provided a robust natural habitat for salmonid species and migratory birds. However, due to the combination of the dam, the loss of groundwater, poor water quality, and insufficient instream flows, the population of salmonid species continue to nosedive. Lack of riparian vegetation and tree canopy contribute to increases in water temperature detrimental to migrating or spawning fish. Migratory birds are exposed to starvation and disease.
Below the dam on either side of the river’s banks are orchards and active farmland (e.g., row crops, vineyards, etc.). Because of the recent drought and depleted groundwater tables, farmers have had to fallow some fields due to water scarcity.
The westside of the TPA watershed hosts a shallow water table due to a confining layer of clay. Water flows from this shallow water table and discharges into the downstream flow of the Queens River. In recent years, the downstream flow of the Queens River has declined significantly. This resulted in less water available for aquatic habitat in stream. Also this portion of the Queens River increased in salinity which impacted the vegetation that grows along the riparian areas. Average temperature of the water also increased as vegetation that shaded this portion of the river began to decline. Seasonal wetlands in the adjacent areas known as vernal pools are no longer seen in this part of the watershed. Vernal pools provided habitat to a variety of endangered species. Without these vernal pools, these aquatic species will continue to be on the endangered species list. Disadvantaged communities in the area that rely solely on the shallow groundwater have noticed their drinking water quality is declining. As the water table continues to decline, the concentration of legacy nitrates increases. This increase in nitrate concentration will soon be beyond the maximum contaminant levels set by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Upstream on the Queens River, the water from the river flows into the aquifer. To meet population demand in the growing cities and housing boom, more water was diverted from the river to supply the new demand. Farmers adjacent to the area began to notice their wells running dry. Wells that supplied water for 50 years were now abandoned. In a race to save their livelihood, farmers resorted to drilling new wells deeper. This required larger pumps that demanded more energy. These larger pumps put a strain on the energy grid requiring the energy company to add more infrastructure to meet the new demand. As a result, the energy company increased the price of electricity. The many abandoned wells, open to the surface, became direct conduits for contaminants during floods. Farmers also noticed water from these deep wells was a poorer quality. It contained a larger amount of salts causing some farmers to switch to more salt tolerant crops. Others farmers had to apply more water to leach the excess salts out of the root zone of the crops. This prevented the crops from delivering a poor yield.
The Indigo Groundwater Sub-basin in the San Joaquin Valley has been designated by DWR as “Critical Overdraft.” It is mandated to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency to create the Groundwater Sustainability Plan to ensure basin sustainability and management.
Included in the area overlaying the Indigo Groundwater Basin is a small disadvantaged community without safe drinking water and wells which go dry during drought times. Water is delivered for use but it is neither affordable or sustainable.
Farmers are worried they will not survive curtailment in their use of groundwater for agricultural purposes and the rising expense of drilling deeper wells into the aquifer to tap the source. They have never before been regulated on their supply of groundwater. They are searching for solutions and opportunities to increase water yield by employing groundwater conservation practices, improving water-use efficiencies, conservation, and identifying strategic lands to recharge the aquifer. Farmers are asking agencies such as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for technical assistance to identify soils on their farm which are conducive to water percolation to aquifers.
Local agencies are searching for solutions and opportunities through water re-use, urban water conservation and efficiency, improved irrigation water use efficiencies, stormwater/floodwater capture and use, and the concept of upper watershed management and restoration to increase snow pack and thereby water yield in the spring snow melt. They are considering changes in cropping patterns or fallowing marginal agricultural fields to reduce demand on the limited supply in addition to recharge infrastructure. They also seek solutions in how to address and ensure safe drinking water to its citizens, particularly to disadvantaged communities.
Wildlife managers, such as the Kern Wildlife Refuge and Tulare Lake, and nonprofits such as the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and local environmental organizations, all have an interest in increasing flows protective of fish and wildlife. One particular priority is for the local GSA to factor in managed wetland areas in their water budgets as required by the SGMA regulations. This would ensure that California’s few remaining wetlands and precious habitat are included in the process of long-overdue water management fixes. Managed wetlands rely on groundwater and need this consideration as a public trust resource and must be ensured adequate water supplies. (Public Trust Doctrine – Water Education Foundation)
The GSA is seeking multiple-benefit approaches to water and land management to enhance groundwater recharge and improve air and water quality. They are interested in promoting healthier soils, new recreational opportunities, additional flood protection, habitat, and new revenue streams for private landowners engaging in conservation-oriented management.
As a collective team of the local Resource Conservation Districts’ natural resources conservation professionals retained by the GSA, your commission is to advise them on developing the GSP and to address the above multiple-benefits as outlined. Your team will prepare a GSP Framework Report to include the following elements and recommendationst:
Recommended Actions Toward Sustainable Water Management
- Recommend projects and actions farmers could implement to improve groundwater levels through expanding and increasing recharge. Recharging groundwater could deliver supplies a farmer can afford. Suggest ideas to incentivize recharge on-farm lands and nearby farm land such as applying floodwater to farm fields; building infra-structure to capture and distribute flood waters. Explore incentives such as when lands are exchanged for recharge areas, such as “credits” given to the farmer to have the ability to pump groundwater from these recharge areas in the future.
- Actions to promote water conservation and protect and replenish groundwater resources.
- Create a soils map of the sub-basin identifying farm land areas more conducive to aquifer recharge due to soil type. The soils map will inform decisions for recharge projects and placing recharge basins and where to locate them. The GSA wants your recommendations on whether and where to fallow fields on marginal agricultural lands; changes or rotations in cropping patterns, and identify opportunities to divert flood flows for recharge.
- Suggest how and why the disadvantaged communities human right and need for safe drinking water and sanitation should be part of the multiple public benefits of the GSP; propose projects which may benefit and improve their public health.
- Should agricultural land be fallowed, suggest options for re-purposing the land to provide an economic return to the farmer (e.g., carbon storage, renewable energy site, etc.).
- Prepare a five-year timeline which phases in measures, actions, and projects to improve water resources management and compliance with SGMA. Include key milestones in planning and implementation and propose funding mechanisms to support the GSP.
Technical Assistance, and Decision Making Tools
- Research and advise on important tools to guide the GSA in advancing integrated water management, sustainability, reliability, and decision making.
- Evaluate the application of DWR’s Flood-MAR as a strategy to advance integration for water management sustainability. Identify areas where it would provide benefits to aquifer replenishment, ecosystem enhancements, drought preparedness, working landscape preservation and stewardship, recharge basins, flood attenuation, improve in-stream flows, and water quality improvements.
- Identify potential partners for designing and implementing innovative projects; what role they play; and the ability to offer technical and financial assistance.
Stakeholder Participation/Cooperation and Governance
- Prepare a process to identify and outreach to key stakeholders, cooperators, nonprofits, and agency partners to provide input, guidance, assistance, and feedback on the planning process to ensure comprehensiveness, inclusiveness, and integrity. At what stages of the planning phase should they be convened or asked for input? How is transparency and accountability built into the public stakeholder process?
- Identify government agency partners and cooperators to assist in water resources management, including infrastructure projects, to attain an approach which is integrated, connected, and holistic.
Environmental and Water Quality Enhancements
- Examine and suggest projects in the basin’s upper watershed to increase water yield, surface water supply, and recharge aquifers. Include your findings and ideas in the Report.
- Provide justification for inclusion of the need for adequate flows to managed wetlands to protect wildlife in the GSP water budget.
- Propose a financial plan covering the first three years to include financial options and funding opportunities available to provide assistance through generating local revenue, tax incentives/credits, government grants or cost sharing, government assistance contracts, water user fees, or general obligation water bond initiatives (e.g., 2014 Prop 1 California Proposition 1 – Water Quality, Supply and …)
- Review financial assistance for safe drinking water and sanitation systems for small rural communities through the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, State Water Resources Control Board, etc. (Division of Financial Assistance – Drinking Water State Revolving Fund) (Small Community Funding Program, Pre-Application
- Research technical and financial assistance available through the Farm Bill Conservation Title programs which offer cost sharing for conservation best practices to private landowners.
- Identify new revenue streams that can be created to support private landowners engaging in water resources management. List key funding partners and what each may offer (e.g., DWR, NRCS, nonprofits, etc.).
- Examine and propose a long term feedback loop to monitor the effectiveness of local solutions and the success of local control.
- Advise on methods to monitor the success of projects implemented to achieve goals and objectives (e.g., improvements to water quality and public health, restoring groundwater levels, the economic viability of local agriculture, wildlife habitat, etc.).
- Develop parameters for a monitoring strategy to assess progress, barriers, setbacks, and needed adjustments to meet SGMA requirements and avoid State Water Resources Control Board intervention..
Funding programs from Farmbill: