Decades after Arizona, California finally enacts a groundwater management act

In 1980, the Arizona legislature enacted the Groundwater Management Act, or Groundwater Management Code. “In 1986, the Ford Foundation selected Arizona’s Groundwater Management Code as one of the 10 most innovative programs in state and local government. Passage of this hallmark legislation in 1980 was a major landmark in Arizona’s efforts to preserve its most vital natural resource.”

California’s groundwater use has been totally unregulated, with disputes about overuse settled in court. California is one of the few states where it’s “pump as you please” with groundwater. California is now the last Western state to enact a groundwater code. Drought-Stricken California Makes Historic Move To Regulate Underground Water For The First Time:

CAdroughtAs the California State Legislature wrapped up their session, they passed the state’s first-ever plan to regulate underground water supplies. Urban Democrats, water district managers, and environmental advocates gave the measure enough support to pass it over the opposition of Republicans and farm-area legislators. The legislation now goes to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature.

Clean Water Action’s Jennifer Clary said, “the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management legislation takes an historic first step towards ensuring that our groundwater will remain a resource for future Californians.”

Three bills make up the groundwater regulatory plan: one tells local agencies to come up with water management programs, another establishes parameters for state intervention, and the third delays that intervention in areas where groundwater pumping has affected surface water. Some agricultural interests fear regulation of the groundwater reserves that many farmers have turned to in the midst of the worst drought in a generation. State Senator Fran Pavley, author of two of the bills, said she worked with farmers to draft them, gaining the support of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

“The state cannot manage water in California until we manage groundwater,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. “You cannot have reliability with no plan to manage water.”

If you are eating a fruit, vegetable, or nut grown in the U.S., there’s an almost 50-50 chance that it came from California. At the same time, it’s the only western state that does not exercise some sort of control over its groundwater.

Groundwater has become even more crucial as surface water supplies have dwindled. In fact, according to a study released last week, while only 70 million acre-feet of water flow through the state during a good year, 370 million acre-feet worth of water rights have been given out in the last hundred years. Yet even adding groundwater supplies to the equation still leaves the state with a water deficit, according to a recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute.

In fact, the Central Valley is consuming twice as much groundwater as can be replaced through normal precipitation. The Valley is the center of gravity to the state’s $36.9 billion agricultural industry because it contains the world’s largest mass of ultra-fertile Class 1 soil.

“It’s our savings account, and we’re draining it,” Phil Isenberg of the Public Policy Institute of California, told the San Jose Mercury News. The former Sacramento mayor and assemblyman continued: “at some point, there will be none left.”

In a normal year for precipitation, California receives about 40 percent of its total water from under the ground — in a dry year, that jumps above 60 percent. It’s gotten even worse this year, with wells drying, fields lying fallow, and most dramatically, the land actually sinking up to a foot a year as the water underneath it gets sucked dry.

Over 95 percent of the state is in a “severe drought” according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor — and 100 percent of the state has been in at least a “moderate” drought for the last three months.

In the rural San Joaquin Valley, hundreds of residents ran out of tap water as the drought dried up the flow of the Tule River which normally provides the area with water. Wells dried up and the county had to deliver bottled water supplies to affected residents last week — supplies that are meant to last only three weeks.

Separately, the legislature also passed a $7.5 billion water bond proposal to invest in improvements to California’s water infrastructure with a nearly unanimous vote. This will go on the November ballot.

Will California finally doing something about its profligate overuse of scarce water supplies solve the West’s water crisis? Probably not. The Arizona Daily Star reported, ‘Megadrought’ risk up to 50 percent, scientists say:

The odds of a potentially devastating Southwestern “megadrought” due to human-caused climate change are as high as 50 percent in this century, a new study finds.

MegaDrought

The chances of a megadrought lasting more than 35 years are 10 to 50 percent, says the study, in which University of Arizona researchers played key roles. The highest risks are in parts of Southeastern Arizona and in southwest Texas, they say.

Those chances are a lot higher than many other researchers have thought.

[“This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region,” Toby Ault, lead author of the study, said in a press release.]

Moreover, if the current drought plaguing Tucson and Southern Arizona lasts another 15 years, “this would almost certainly constitute a megadrought” — the kind that typically strikes a particular place once or twice in 1,000 years, says the study’s lead author.

“What’s happening right now in California and much of the Southwest, that’s a sneak preview of what we expect from the future,” said Toby Ault, a Cornell University researcher who began the report while working on his doctorate at the UA. “We’re not saying that what’s happening now (with drought) is because of climate change. What I’m saying is that as the Earth’s temperatures rise, the likelihood of megadrought gets higher, and we expect this kind of event gets more and more common.”

The report says that computer models used to make predictions of future droughts, including those done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “critically underestimate” the risks of future droughts lasting longer than a decade.

A megadrought combined with continued growth and “business-as-usual water use” would wreak havoc on the Southwest’s already fragile water supplies, says Julia Cole, a UA researcher who co-authored the study.

* * *

“If conditions remain as dry or drier than they have been during the last 20 years for an additional 15, this would almost certainly constitute megadrought,” Ault said.

But to understand if this drought will last another one, two or 10 years, researchers would need to be able to make predictions that are now on the cutting edge of science, he said.

“It’s really a hot topic. We don’t have the skill at the time scales of one to 10 years to say that this drought will continue,” said Ault, who attended graduate school at UA from 2004 to 2011 and has worked on this report since 2007.

If a prolonged megadrought occurred, it would cause both socioeconomic and ecological problems with unprecedented consequences in modern times, the study said.

While there’s been real debate among the researchers as to when the Southwest last had a prolonged megadrought, some studies have said one happened during the 16th century. There’s general agreement that one occurred during the 1150s and beyond, Ault said. The Sahel region of Africa, a narrow band of land south of the Sahara, experienced a 30-year megadrought from the 1970s through the 1990s.

While no one can say for sure that the Southwest’s current drought is caused by global warming, many researchers agree that climate change aggravates the risk of drought, in part because more heat means more evaporation of water.

* * *

All this has been known for some time by those who study climate change.

But this study’s conclusion that earlier computer models underestimated the risks of prolonged drought comes partly because it made much more use than did past studies of paleoclimactic data such as tree rings and lake and cave sediments, the UA’s Cole said.

Past studies, by contrast, tended to look mainly at past trends in rainfall based on historical written records, and projected how climate change could affect them, Cole and Ault said. “The novelty of this project is to take those trends and try to turn them into tangible numbers of megadrought risk,” Ault said.

Also, the new study looked only at hundreds of years of rainfall records — not past temperatures — to make its risk estimates, the researchers noted. Because warmer weather can aggravate a drought, “the view of risk presented here is quite conservative,” the report said.

The Star contacted three climate researchers, not involved in this study, who at times have drawn conclusions at odds with these findings. None had anything critical to say about the new study.

Jason Smerdon, a Columbia University researcher was not willing to say that his studies are at odds with the new Ault-UA paper because they looked at different things and used different data sampling methods.

“The bottom line is that I think there are still some open questions about what the models and the historical data are telling us about the potential risks into the future,” said Smerdon, an associate research professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Generally, however, it breaks down to a question of bad or worse, he said.

2 responses to “Decades after Arizona, California finally enacts a groundwater management act

  1. Frances Perkins

    Of course the law doesn’t work in all of Arizona. In Mohave County, Las Vegas developer and non-bill payer, Jim Rhodes, is allegedly “farming” or at least creating massive miles wide dust clouds, in a non AMA area while sucking massive amounts of groundwater, under the nonsensical “beneficial use” doctrine. And the entire State wrings it’s hands while saying we can’t do anything about it. Just wait until he wants to send Arizona groundwater to Las Vegas.

  2. ”While no one can say for sure that the Southwest’s current drought is caused by global warming, many researchers agree that climate change aggravates the risk of drought, in part because more heat means more evaporation of water.”

    What a wishy-washy way to proclaim doom and gloom over climate change. What were the Native Americans doing in the 1100’s and 1600’s that brought about the megadroughts? Probably about the same thing that all mankind was doing to bring about the last ice age. Which is about what we are doing today to bring about climate change. NOTHING.

    I don’t question the possibility that we are possibly facing a major drought in the next few years. There are a lot of indicators that might be the case. I just don’t think we are going to be able to do anything to stop it any more than we can do anything to cause it. After all, climate change does not necessarily mean global warming. Remember a few years ago when they changed the terminology because we experienced some colder than normal weather? And then they discovered that the “experts” in England – upon whose studies all the other studies were based – had deliberately faked the data to arrive at their conclusion that global warming was real.

    Anyway, we’ve heard the bad news…does anyone have a solution(s)?