California Water Policy and Management

California, the Golden State, can legitimately claim a number of superlatives. It’s the ninth largest economy in the world. It has the largest living tree in Sequoia National Park. It has the highest and lowest points (Mount Whitney and Death Valley) in the continental USA. Death Valley is also the hottest and driest place in the USA. And California has the most variable climate in the USA. This last distinction has some downsides.

The state relies on a relatively small number of winter storms to recharge groundwater sources and restore snowpack that furnishes most of the potable water in the state. But in times of drought, the state relies on groundwater. Some estimates indicate that as much as 65% of water is sourced from these supplies.

Shamefully, California also stands out as the only state that doesn’t regulate groundwater – pumping is not monitored or measured.  As noted about electricity consumption, if it is not measured, it is not managed.  The state has 127 basins that supply groundwater for residential populations and agricultural users, and many of these sources are being stressed by over-pumping.  That’s created a situation that is akin to strip-mining, with similar permanent damages.

As underground sources are pumped dry, the result is subsidence – the ground sinks.  In San Joaquin Valley, which is part of California’s Central Valley, unregulated groundwater pumping had sunk some parts of the valley by 28 feet (8.5 meters) by the early 1970s.  The pace of drilling new and deeper wells has intensified in the extreme drought that California in experiencing, resulting in more subsidence. This has expensive impacts on water infrastructure repairs to canals, dams, and pipelines, as well as built environments.  Many areas are permanently flattened due to a condition called inelastic compaction.  There’s no sponge effect to restore this compacted land to its former condition.

That’s a real tragedy, because the state needs those aquifers.  Groundwater storage is cheap compared to other forms of storage.  On average, it costs $10 to $600 per acrefoot to store groundwater.  In contrast, storage in reservoirs, recycling water to potability standards, and desalination can run as high as $2500/acrefoot.  Compacting underground storage areas by pumping beyond sustainable levels carries a very high cost replacement options are considered.

There’s a federal component at play when it comes to water in Western states.  Both federal and state governments could learn several valuable lessons from the Australians, who, as a result of a devastating national drought, rationalized their laws about water rights and strongly reinforced the concept that water is a public good, and publicly owned.  The Australians were true innovators when it came to smart water management policy.

California has a history of innovative policy to look to for inspiration. The loading order the state enacted for energy sources in 2003 and continues today is an important example.  That policy put first priority on energy efficiency and demand response to reduce overall energy needs, then renewable energy sources and distributed generation, and finally clean fossil?fueled sources and infrastructure improvements.  This strategy has paid off in reduced CO2 emissions and diversifying the state’s energy mix.   It also happened to reduce the average Californian’s energy bill to one of the lowest in the country as noted in a recent Department of Commerce report on consumer spending.

A similar approach could reduce statewide water consumption and leverage non-traditional water sources.  Aggressive statewide water efficiency standards are an excellent first priority.  Regulating groundwater pumping is another important step.  Diversification strategies should increase the use of recycled graywater for landscaping and other non-potable uses.  A diversified water portfolio also has to consider backup sources of potable water to improve water infrastructure resiliency.  A focus on more distributed, community-based water storage could help, capturing valuable precipitation for future consumption, rather than immediately dumping it into storm drains for treatment and release.  Existing water infrastructure can also be upgraded, replacing aging pipes to eliminate leaks and improve systemic resiliency to failures and threats.

Could California be first state in the USA to adopt these policy innovations to be a leader in smart water management?  The first bill to regulate groundwater, SB1168, is wending its way through the law-making process.  Time will soon tell if water policy will change to a more rational approach that supports better management.

Photo Credit: California Water Policy/shutterstock