Groundwater Crisis

April 13, 2014

State water board official shares views about the region’s groundwater concerns

Turlock resident Dorene “DeeDee” D’Adamo, one of five members of the State Water Resources Control Board, will participate in Tuesday’s “Groundwater Challenges” forum at California State University, Stanislaus.

Turlock resident Dorene “DeeDee” D’Adamo, one of five members of the State Water Resources Control Board, will participate in Tuesday’s “Groundwater Challenges” forum at California State University, Stanislaus.

D’Adamo has lived in the San Joaquin Valley for more than 20 years. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the water board last year, after she had served 14 years on the California Air Resources Board.

She is married to Berj Moosekian, a third-generation farmer and produce shipper on the Valley’s west side.

D’Adamo will be among several water experts participating in Tuesday’s forum, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Turlock university’s Mary Stuart Rogers Educational Services Gateway Building, Room 130.

As an advance of that event, D’Adamo shared her views with The Modesto Bee about the groundwater challenges ahead for California.

Why is there so much talk these days about groundwater?

Groundwater is often referred to as our “savings account” for water, where water is stored underground for later use much the same way it is stored in reservoirs. We rely on it for farms and domestic needs, and it’s what drives our economy in the Valley.

Unfortunately, vital groundwater resources are being overtaxed in some areas, and in those areas current practices are not sustainable.

Stanislaus, San Joaquin and surrounding counties are suddenly finding themselves in the center of a controversy over groundwater. Well failures, the need to drill deeper than in years past, and thousands of new acres of permanent crops have caused many to be concerned.

Many communities have seen and experienced this problem growing and want to take a leadership role to correct it, and we all need to work together to make that happen.

Why should regular folks be concerned about California’s groundwater supply?

About one-third of the San Joaquin Valley’s water supply comes from groundwater. We are even more dependent on groundwater during droughts, when surface supplies are limited.

In the long term, as water demand increases and the Sierra snowpack decreases due to climate change, we expect that we will be even more dependent on groundwater. If groundwater resources are properly managed, they can serve as a safety net to see us though the drier times.

On the other hand, failure to manage groundwater will make our water supply less reliable when we need it the most. We are already hearing of situations here in the Valley where rural residents’ wells are going dry and agricultural users need to drill deeper wells.

Subsidence is another big concern. This is where the land surface actually sinks as groundwater is pumped, which can cause costly impacts to infrastructure. Once the land subsides, it cannot be restored, which actually reduces the amount of water that can be stored underground.

It is in all our best interests to come together at the local, regional and state levels to address these growing challenges.

What is the State Water Resources Control Board’s role in regulating groundwater? Isn’t this a local matter?

The Brown administration firmly believes that groundwater management is best done at the local level. California does not have a statewide system for permitting groundwater use as it does for surface water.

Many areas of the state have a long history of local groundwater management that has proven successful. Some areas, however, have been unable to address serious problems, for a variety of reasons.

We know that local agencies are often in the best position to manage their groundwater and that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work given the physical and cultural differences in our basins. We need to make every effort possible to make sure local agencies have the tools, authorities and funding they need to manage groundwater.

However, when groundwater resources are not being managed sustainably, and the local agencies are unable or unwilling to address the problems effectively, the state should have a role in protecting those basins and their users on a temporary basis until an adequate local program is established.

Don’t property owners have water rights to the aquifers beneath their own land?

Yes, in most areas of California, landowners may pump groundwater from beneath their property and use it beneficially without approval from the state.

These rights are not, however, without limitation. All of the landowners in a particular basin share the available water, and each individual landowner is entitled to a reasonable share.

In some basins, the available water supply or even how much is being used is not known. This makes it nearly impossible for groundwater users in a basin to know what their “share” of the resource is and to manage it so that everyone benefits.

In certain situations, private citizens or the state may initiate an adjudication of a groundwater basin, which is a process where available groundwater is quantified and divvied up by the courts. This is an expensive and lengthy process.

A much-preferred approach would be to have local or regional management, rather than having courts decide who has the right to what amount of water.

What type of groundwater regulations is your board considering and why?

The state water board is not developing regulations. The board has requested, through the budget process, to hire additional staff to start collecting information on the basins with the most serious problems and on the management efforts being undertaken in those basins. They would also provide technical assistance to communities that want and need to tackle their groundwater problems.

The governor’s office has been working on legislation that would give local agencies better authority to manage groundwater, and remove barriers to management of what is a community resource.

The governor’s office is also considering ways to improve the board’s ability to be an effective backstop on a temporary basis to halt a serious decline in the groundwater resource.

There are concerns about large tracts of formerly dry land being planted with permanent crops, like almond orchards, and irrigated with groundwater. Will they be regulated?

A change in the agricultural landscape has taken place in recent years with the increase in permanent plantings like grapes and almonds, and this has resulted in a greater reliance on the groundwater savings account, not just in dry years.

The cumulative effect can cause “overdraft” – more water coming out than being replenished. For some, maintaining the investment in the permanent crops means drilling deeper, leading to a “race to the bottom.”

Land use regulation, like groundwater regulation, is handled at the local level, but there is generally very little connection between land use decisions and water use, especially groundwater.

One of the positive outcomes of all of the conversation about what to do about groundwater now is that most folks agree that we have to make that connection if we want our kids, and theirs to come, to be able to maintain their farms and communities for the future.

To reduce groundwater use, why doesn’t the state just allow more water to be diverted from California’s rivers – like the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers – rather than letting it flow to the ocean?

There are already significant demands on surface water from the San Joaquin River watershed, and the amount of water that travels downstream to the Delta has been significantly reduced.

Under natural, unimpaired flow conditions, the San Joaquin River watershed would contribute about 20 percent of the flow to the Delta, but under the current conditions it only contributes half of this amount.

In determining whether additional water could be diverted from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, the water board would have to first consider whether new diversions would adversely affect more senior water users or the environment.

Additionally, during dry conditions such as this year, there is not enough water in these rivers to meet the existing demands, so those with junior water rights will be ordered to cease diversions in favor of those with more senior water rights.

Many say that the solution to groundwater overdraft is more surface storage. What do you think?

Increased surface storage could alleviate some of our groundwater overdraft problems and should be considered. In fact, expanding water storage capacity, both on the surface and underground, is one of the key actions identified in the Brown administration’s California Water Action Plan.

When it comes to groundwater, however, there are no easy fixes. In addition to more surface storage, we need to consider a broad range of management options, including recharging groundwater with surface water, conservation, increased use of recycled water, capturing and reusing storm water and better-integrated regional projects.

Local agencies that manage groundwater successfully typically use a broad array of these tools. In areas where groundwater overdraft and water quality concerns have been mounting for decades, local agencies can probably only resolve them though a diverse set of solutions.

What can community members do to help solve California’s water issues?

This summer will be really challenging with the drought. Tough choices are and will continue to be made.

It is likely that years like these will be more common in the future, and we will need to learn from this year’s experience to become more aware of the limits of both our surface and groundwater supplies and create a more sustainable path for the future.

Community members should try to save as much water as they can, and help spread the word that everyone needs to save water.

For tips on saving water, visit

What can farmers do to help solve California’s water issues?

California farmers are leaders in some of the most efficient methods of irrigation in the world.

From 2003 to 2013, California farmers invested over $3 billion in upgraded irrigation systems (drip, microsprinklers, high-efficiency pumps) on almost 2.5 million acres. Many of these efficiencies have resulted in higher yields.

Farmers and agricultural organizations should come together to collectively address groundwater challenges by expanding upon their already proven success with irrigation efficiencies.

Expanding irrigation efficiencies to more farms and redirecting the saved water to groundwater recharge programs will help to sustain groundwater supplies for farms and communities into the future.

What else do you want to share about the state’s water resources?

There is broad consensus that our state’s water management system is unable to meet all our needs and that sustaining supplies for agriculture, industry, the environment and a growing population, while preparing for the effects of climate change, requires commitment and action.

The California Water Action Plan lays out a comprehensive suite of actions for the next five years aimed at more reliable water supplies, restoring important species and habitat, and developing a more sustainably managed water resources system.

To be sustainable, solutions must strike a balance between the need to provide for public health and safety, protect the environment and support a stable California economy.

Solutions are complex and expensive, and they require cooperation and commitment of all Californians working together.

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