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Unprecedented cooperation to avoid groundwater overdraft

February 14, 2017

Irrigation conference speakers repeatedly emphasized conjunctive surface water and groundwater data management, lots of communication and cooperation to address chronic water scarcity especially with groundwater.

Every year I’m encouraged by the healthy number of students from Cal Poly and Fresno State who attend the annual conference of the California Irrigation Institute, the oldest continuing water forum in the state. The event theme however revealed an outdated paradigm for understanding water information and oversight of today’s tools to manage water and natural resources: The image of millennials or equally smartphone-obsessed adults balancing a water checkbook made me chuckle.

Manually managing all ATM transactions and credit card purchases is certainly time consuming and may be inaccurate. To avoid overdraft, online banking keeps everything tallied. It automatically logs direct deposit of my paycheck and recurring payments. Quick-and-easy access shows me past and pending charges I’ve personally racked up… so I know how convenient this technology is for joint accounts!

Like joint bank accounts, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and looming deadline for the formation of local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) were a hot topic at the conference. Overdrafting of aquifer supplies has accelerated the rate of land subsidence. Without intervention, the ever decreasing ground level makes urban and agricultural communities vulnerable to flooding and compromised water quality – including salt water intrusion.

Conference speakers repeatedly emphasized conjunctive surface water and groundwater data management, lots of communication and cooperation to address chronic water scarcity especially with groundwater.

Kristin Sicke of Yolo County Flood Control & Water Conservation District and formerly the California Department of Water Resources remarked, “We obviously now need to think about a sub-basin, (and) beyond that sub-basin, we are all neighbors… We try to remind ourselves that it is more than just in our little districts.

While speakers represented urban as well as agriculture interests, all agreed SGMA is better coordinated at local levels. Nobody backed a consolidated approach by the State Water Resources Control Board. Danny Merkley of the California Farm Bureau Federation said the group opposed how hastily SGMA was passed. “There’s no one size fits all policy; some areas (rely on) 100 percent groundwater, and others less.” The fourth generation farmer advocated the need for data in decision-making and evaluating efficient water use.

Tony Morgan of United Water Conservation District in Ventura County stressed the need for flexible and adaptable SGMA implementation. He pointed out challenges to replenishing aquifers beyond monitoring water level and water quality in the Santa Clara River. District efforts need to navigate the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service mandates to release water to maintain habitats even during droughts.

As an active member of the Groundwater Resources Association, Morgan comprehends and even embraces the complexity. He encouraged GSAs to be proactive rather than resistant. SGMA is not surrendering water rights. Instead it’s about each player being more aware and then working together to define measurable sustainability goals and achieve them. Technical advisory groups should meet regularly and establish protocols to calculate sustainable yield. Removing the sting of initial difficulties Morgan added, “Bones heal. Pain is temporary. Chicks dig scars.”

As a chick, I can’t say that I dig scars. On the other hand, I dig living in Sacramento, America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, where local farmers supply my dinner table and restaurants when I splurge. I try to live a don’t-spend-what-I-don’t-have kind of lifestyle. And I’m not alone as other millennials tread or drown in student loans. We’re not interested in more debt or subsidence of our neighbor’s farms.

We want to see “a sign of what’s possible in America – as long as one is provided with inspiration and has patience for the sometimes slow-moving wheels of bureaucratic processes” — Daniel Reynolds, Here Media

We know technology exists to not only analyze surface water and groundwater interaction and quality, but also to sustain collective water resources. What we need are people willing to pool their data and apply that information to make decisions that affect all of us.