September 10, 2015

New Report Provides Roadmap for Implementing California’s Historic Groundwater Law

Sustainable Groundwater Management Necessary to Ensure Water Reliability in Drier Future

(September 10, 2015) — As the climate changes and California undergoes a massive change in how it collects and manages its dwindling water resources, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report today that will inform efforts to implement the state’s the first-ever statewide requirement for groundwater management.

The California Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act last year amid a record drought and an unprecedented amount of groundwater pumping. The law requires local groundwater agencies to set measurable objectives to achieve sustainability in their communities, but does not prescribe how to accomplish that.

The report—“Measuring What Matters: Setting Measurable Objectives to Achieve Sustainable Groundwater Management in California”—suggests methods to effectively manage the state’s groundwater that supplies as much as 50 percent of the state’s water during droughts. It recommends that local agencies use common metrics and reporting guidelines so that the state can ensure that groundwater withdrawals do not exceed supply.

“Up until now, the state’s groundwater was largely unregulated and chaotic,” said lead author and UCS climate scientist Juliet Christian-Smith. “There is an opportunity now to bring order to that chaos by defining what we mean by sustainability so we realistically know when we exceed our supply.”

For more than a century, California has relied on its reservoirs, rivers and dams fed by snowmelt to provide the majority of its water. With drought and climate change depleting those traditional supplies, the state is increasingly focusing on groundwater storage. 

“California’s surface water supplies will not deliver what we need in the future and the way we manage our water has to change,” said Christian-Smith. “We must make our groundwater supplies more sustainable so there will be safe and reliable water for generations to come.”

Because the amount and quality of data that groundwater basins currently collect varies widely across California, the state should ensure that local agencies have access to consistent data so they can better assess their groundwater conditions over time, according to the report. To achieve sustainability, the report recommends that groundwater agencies incorporate the following information in their management plans:

  • Growth and land uses forecasts based on the most recent county general plans.
  • Climate change forecasts from a consistent set of scenarios.
  • A 5-year drought contingency plan.

“Measurable objectives are going to be the most difficult and controversial aspect of SGMA implementation,” said Paul Gosselin, director of the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation.

UCS, in partnership with the California Water Foundation, an initiative of Resources Legacy Fund, convened a multi-stakeholder roundtable to evaluate this report and compile a series of recommendations regarding measurable objectives. The roundtable involved voices from agriculture, water agencies, under-represented communities, environmental interests and counties throughout the state.

“While local agencies are responsible for developing groundwater sustainability plans based on local conditions, the state must provide the necessary guidance and an appropriate framework to ensure they are successful,” said Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation. “This report points to the importance of collecting consistent information and developing basic standards to ensure we can manage these valuable resources.”

For a blog post by Juliet Christian-Smith discussing the report’s significance, go to: http://blog.ucsusa.org/measuring-sustainable-groundwater-management-california-877

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.