Catalyst Summer 2018
Ideas in Action

Groundwater Planning: Helping Local Activists Have a Say

Photo: Cuyama Valley Family Resource Center
Cuyama Promotores members Yuritze Fonseca, Claudia Alvarado, and Hilda Leticia Valenzuela (left to right) used the UCS toolkit as they prepared for a presentation for their community about groundwater management. Alvarado and Valenzuela were recently appointed to the standing advisory committee of the region’s groundwater sustainability agency.
By Pamela Worth

While the most visible signs of drought in California are dry riverbeds, limited snowpack, and depleted reservoirs, some of the state’s more serious water supply problems are hidden from view. An overreliance on underground aquifers in the state has led to concerns that California could run out of groundwater, causing significant environmental harm. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been working for years to promote science-based groundwater sustainability policies on the West Coast and figure out sensible ways to execute them.

When the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 was implemented in California, Golden State residents were tasked with forming groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) that would create their own plans for preserving this vital resource. UCS worked to support fledgling GSAs with guidance on their plans, and today these groups have become almost as Californian as In-N-Out Burger, with dozens operating in the regions where the risk of groundwater depletion is highest.

Unfortunately, GSAs are not always representative of the people who will be most affected by the policies they draft, says UCS Western States Outreach Coordinator Coreen Weintraub. “Large landowners often have an outsized say in groundwater management,” she says, “even though the issue clearly affects the health and well-being of all residents.”

Putting the UCS Groundwater Toolkit to Work

A significant amount of California's groundwater is used for irrigation. Groundwater sustainability agencies work with farms, residents, governments, and other water users to create comprehensive plans for managing and preserving this vital resource.
Photo: Herr Loeffler/Adobe Stock

To help encourage better representation in GSAs, Weintraub and her colleagues in the UCS Oakland office created a printed “toolkit”—in both English and Spanish—called Getting Involved in Groundwater (Participe en el manejo de su cuenca). Supported by a series of workshops the UCS team conducted in counties around the state, the toolkit helps English and Spanish speakers learn more about their stake in groundwater management, and how they can get involved to represent their communities’ interests and needs.

Using our guide and online toolkit, Californians—even those with little to no experience discussing groundwater issues—can prepare themselves to effectively participate in shaping the vision and plan for their community around maintaining groundwater supplies.

In California and interested in learning more about water management? Download the toolkit (in English or Spanish).

These efforts have yielded results even beyond the cities and towns UCS team members personally visited. In a remote town in the Cuyama Valley, home primarily to agriculture and oil operations, a social services agency passed around Getting Involved in Groundwater to a group of Spanish-speaking women who call themselves the Cuyama Promotores (“promoters”). Interest and engagement in groundwater management is crucial in this particular region, says Weintraub.

“They need it, because the Cuyama Valley has a critically overdrawn groundwater basin,” she says. “And there’s been some questionable investment in agriculture there, because the water supply may not match the needs of growing operations.”

The Promotores studied the toolkit and delivered a presentation about it to other Cuyama Valley residents. And then they successfully used their knowledge to demand representation in the area’s groundwater management planning process. Two of the Promotores have now been appointed to the standing advisory committee of the Cuyama Basin GSA.

“They’re going to advocate for the community’s needs as the agency works to draft its sustainability plan,” says Weintraub. “We’re glad the toolkit helped them be conversant in the language of groundwater issues. Now they can bring their own local knowledge and awareness of the problems—and their enthusiasm—to help create a plan for the Cuyama Valley that will work for everyone.”