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What Does Groundwater Monitoring Mean?

For example, in Madera County there is an annnual 150,000 acre foot overdraft. Will they have to idle 50,000 acres that are currently being farmed?

Sep 24, 2013

When the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) advocated for San Joaquin River Restoration they told people in the Central Valley there was enough water for the fish and for agriculture. People believed them. Then, as River Restoration was being signed into law, the NRDC won their lawsuit to limit pumping out of the Delta to protect the Delta Smelt. This had two effects: 1. It has created a shortage of water both for the west side and the east side of the Valley. So, effectively limiting the amount of surface water that could get to farms in the whole Valley, farmers did the only thing the could do: pump groundwater.

Environmentalists oppose any kind of dam building, dam raising, delta tunnels, or just about anything else that would help a farmer in the Valley. They totally control surface water for all kinds of nefarious environmental goals. They say they believe farmers can do with what they have left if they would only do a better job of conservation and growing crops that need less water. Years ago their argument was that farmers should switch to high-value crops and quit raising, for example, cotton. Now that the farmers have switched to high-value crops like almonds and pistachios they say farmers should grow crops that use less watrer than the high-value crops. They don't seem to care that people don't want to buy the crops they suggest we grow. Of course, they know nothng about farming except that they don't like it.

So, now they want to control groundwater. Not a surprise. We, along with others, have been saying all along this would happen. They want to monitor your groundwater. What, exactly, does it mean? There is a hint in the article below. In it, the authors suggest that our current groundwater policy is like " having a checking account, never keeping track of iithdrawals and not worrying about the declining balance. As irresponsible as this may sound, it is precisely how we deal with most groundwater, not only in California but in much of the United States and around the world."

Are they suggesting we balance our water books? What comes out must go back in? What if there isn't any water to go back in? What then? Must land be idled? How much land? Maybe an acre of land for every three acre feet of water? For example, in Madera County there is an annnual 150,000 acre foot overdraft. Will they have to idle 50,000 acres that are currently being farmed? That's where we think they will be going for the whole Valley. We don't know yet the exact formula, but we get the drift.

We remind people that even in this dry year, your government is dumping over 200,000 acre feet down the San Joaquin River with no benefit to the salmon and a loss to the farmers.

California's water house of cards

Groundwater supplies at least a third of the state's water. But it's being depleted at a rapid pace, despite efforts to recharge it.

By Jay Famiglietti and Sasha Richey

Gov. Jerry Brown's Office of Planning and Research convened a meeting this month of groundwater experts from the University of California to determine what is currently known about the state's underground water reserves and how they may be changing in the future. This and other recent overtures from the office are strong indications of the governor's growing interest in the state's complete water picture.

That picture is increasingly threatened, in particular where groundwater is concerned. California uses more of it than any other state: Nearly 20% of all groundwater withdrawals in the United States occur in California. The importance of this underground water source to the socioeconomic and environmental health of our state cannot be overemphasized.

We rely on groundwater to provide a third or more of our statewide water supply, and even more in drought years. Most of the water pumped is used for irrigation, although an increasingly large amount is being used to support energy production. Unfortunately, the vast reserve that underlies our state is being depleted at a rapid pace.

Our research, using information from NASA satellites, shows that since 2002, the Central Valley has been using groundwater at a rate of 800 billion gallons a year. That is roughly equivalent to one full Lake Mead every 12 years. Our findings are consistent with those of the U.S. Geological Survey, which paint a longer-term picture of California's disappearing groundwater.

In the Central Valley, falling well levels and subsiding land are curtailing food production, damaging ecosystems and threatening the livelihoods of the thousands of area residents employed by the water-dependent agricultural sector. A recent report on the Coachella Valley documented decades of groundwater depletion there as well, despite local and regional efforts at managed recharge and water banking.

Clearly, food and energy production are essential, but those water needs must be balanced against domestic requirements, the needs of the environment and ecosystems, long-term preservation of groundwater supplies for future generations and the economic future of our state and nation.

The challenge of optimally allocating groundwater among its competing uses is exacerbated by California's steadily growing population and the impacts of climate change. Warmer temperatures are already decreasing the amount of water stored as snow in the Sierra each winter. Ultimately this translates into lower river flows and less replenishment of underground aquifers.

One important outcome of the Office of Planning and Research meeting was unanimous agreement that the state's top groundwater priority should be to implement a monitoring and management program that includes strong regional and local components. Although many in the state's agricultural community will express discomfort over such proposals, there is little doubt that the absence of such a management framework has transformed California's groundwater infrastructure into an unsustainable house of cards.

Imagine having a checking account, never keeping track of withdrawals and not worrying about the declining balance. As irresponsible as this may sound, it is precisely how we deal with most groundwater, not only in California but in much of the United States and around the world. Groundwater withdrawals must be monitored, levels continuously measured, and statewide and regional targets set and met.

Equally important are education and public communication. Both are essential for public engagement and support. This requires raising awareness of the state's critical water issues to the level of everyday understanding, a burden that falls largely to those of us who research them.

The state must invest heavily in helping translate and communicate key issues to farmers and farm bureaus, to the energy sector, to the general public, to state and regional water managers, and to elected officials at all levels. We all place demands on groundwater, either directly or indirectly, and must contribute to mitigating its decline. Once people truly understand that our groundwater is disappearing and not coming back, acceptance of the need for careful monitoring is far more likely.

Finally, sound management decisions cannot be made without a sound scientific basis. Unfortunately, key decisions are often made based on politics. California's issues are so complex that it would be inexcusable to proceed without taking advantage of some of the best available science — the vast expertise in water research from our state's universities and national laboratories.

Without active management of California groundwater, our state's and our nation's food and economic, energy and water security will be increasingly at risk. The era of relative abundance is over. California needs a clear road map toward a sustainable groundwater future — and it needs one today.

Jay Famiglietti is the director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at UC Irvine. Sasha Richey is a senior doctoral candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Irvine.

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