California’s Groundwater Protection Plans Seek to Protect and Preserve the State’s Most Scarce Resource

This past winter, California finally experienced the rain it had been desperately awaiting for several years. The state Department of Water Resources is tracking more than 22 million acre-feet of water in its reservoirs, hoping that it will replenish the losses sustained from 2012 onward when a drought began ravaging the state. While California residents must be excited at the prospect of longer showers, state water officials are researching how to best make the bounty last.

California precipitation is unpredictable, and the state is generally only one bad year away from a water shortage. With its massive population and variety of farms and factories, state businesses alone use between 30 to 40 million acre-feet of water per year. When water availability becomes scarce, the state turns to its underground reservoirs. In dry years, groundwater contributes up to 46 percent of the state’s annual water supply. In 2014, groundwater management laws were approved by California legislators seeking to protect this natural resource. California depends on groundwater for a major portion of its annual water supply, and legislators believed that a comprehensive groundwater management program was necessary to ensure that the reservoir of last resort was safe. In 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was adopted to this end. The intent of this act is for “groundwater to be managed sustainably in California’s groundwater basins by local public agencies and newly formed groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs).”

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was designed to be implemented over the next twenty years. As of January 1, 2015, local agencies that were interested in forming Groundwater Sustainability Agencies were required to submit their intent to the Department of Water Resources. The deadline to establish a GSA for high and medium priority basins is June 30, 2017. By January of 2020, high and medium priority basins must be managed under a Groundwater Sustainability Plan established by the GSA and approved by the Department of Water Resources. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Program will continue to implement the law and provide ongoing support to local agencies around the state. The GSA’s are required to monitor water levels and work together with the Department of Water Resources to ensure that groundwater stays clean and abundant.  The Los Angeles Times reports that in conjunction with the agencies, state farmers and factories are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create temporary recharge areas out of fallow fields, and have been keeping irrigation ditches full of water to encourage underground seepage.

While the new legislation projects a long-term plan to protect the state’s most precious resource, California still may be pumping too much groundwater out of its reservoirs. Over-pumping can result in collapse and degradation of the underground natural storage “tanks,” reducing its future capacity to hold water. Going forward, California’s new Groundwater Management Program may consider expanding its scope to not only the protection and management of current groundwater reserves, but also to ensuring that other water resources are used to their maximum availability before potentially damaging the groundwater reservoirs, resulting in a permanent loss of groundwater storage. While the winter of 2016-2017 replenished much of California’s depleted water supply, the state still has a long road to travel in learning to balance the needs of its residents with the permanent protection of its most precious resource.