New California Groundwater Sustainability Guide Bridges Gap Between Technical Experts and Community Members

Published Oct 25, 2017

OAKLAND, Calif. (October 26, 2017)—The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new guide for nonexperts to better understand the science and political processes behind groundwater management. The guide is called Getting Involved in Groundwater; A Guide to California’s Groundwater Sustainability Plans and is available in English and Spanish.

Two years after California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), scores of communities up and down the state met their first deadline this past June when they formed local agencies to manage their underground resources and ensure aquifers achieve sustainability by 2040.

Yet, UCS water experts say that while the law seeks to include diverse voices historically left out of water management decisions, lack of technical expertise is keeping many people from participating in a meaningful way.

The guide was designed to address that gap. With sections on basin conditions, sustainability goals, water models and more, the guide presents a series of questions and advice for residents who care about local water issues and want to better understand what is being discussed at public meetings.

“Water is a shared natural resource so it’s vital to have community involvement, yet it’s extraordinarily difficult to get community members involved because water in California has been a complicated, insiders’ game for a very long time,” said Adrienne Alvord, Western States director at UCS. “With this guide in hand, we want more people to feel empowered to ask questions, comment publicly and be a part of the process.”

California’s recent drought officially ended in April 2017, but its impact is not forgotten in communities that were forced to obtain temporary sources of water or to dramatically reduce their water use. Some communities like East Porterville in the Central Valley saw their drinking water wells run dry during the drought.

“Thousands of Californians ran out of water completely during the drought,” said Laurel Firestone, co-executive director at Community Water Center in Visalia that partnered on the development of the guide. “The drought made clear the need for everyday people to speak up about their water resources and get involved at the local level where decisions about water use, quality, costs and supplies are made. Those communities most impacted must be at the table and have the tools to drive how our most fundamental underground resource is used.” 

There are 515 groundwater basins in California, 127 of which are over-drafted. Californians rely on groundwater for about 40 percent of their water supply in average years and much more in dry years.

Prior to SGMA’s passage in 2014, groundwater resources in California were not subject to the same level of government oversight as above ground water resources. It is no surprise excessive pumping of aquifers has been a chronic problem throughout the state for years. Earlier this year, scientists confirmed 40 cubic kilometers of water, enough to fill Shasta Reservoir—the state’s largest reservoir—seven times, were pumped out of Central Valley aquifers during the last drought.

SGMA requires each community to create an agency to oversee local groundwater sustainability. That agency is made up of board members who must define what sustainability means according to that community’s values.

“We know that in the coming decades our future water supply in California will rely less on what falls from the sky and more from what we store in the earth,” said Alvord. “The state’s law was an important, historic step, but now it’s up to everyone who cares about water to pull up a seat to the table and make sure groundwater sustainability plans are implemented in a way that truly reflects their community values.”

Getting Involved in Groundwater; A Guide to California’s Groundwater Sustainability Plans is available for free online. Hard copies can be requested by contacting Coreen Weintraub, outreach coordinator, at [email protected].