California's Underground Water War

That approach acknowledges the work already completed in the 22 adjudicated basins and a handful of others that have come to collective management agreements, including Orange County, Santa Clara Valley, and Coachella Valley.

“All the places that have good groundwater management have it because they had problems,” said Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

The law also seeks to remedy another big problem: The state does not currently require groundwater supplies or pumping rates to be measured.

Snow said that the new bill would require each groundwater basin to report everyone’s pumping quantities and depth of groundwater each year as part of their sustainability plans. They would also be required to set specific objectives for stabilizing the water level at a certain elevation.

“We didn’t require meters, but we’re requiring the adequate ability to monitor,” said State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “We’re trying to be as flexible as we can in a way that will allow locals to get us further, faster.”

But in fact, such metrics are key to understanding the problem and crafting the solution, says a Stanford project called Water in the West. It recommends keeping well-drilling logs, measuring aquifer levels over time, metering water pumped from a basin, and measuring changes in temperature, salinity, and contaminants, which can be a sign of overpumping. That information will help create groundwater models that can manage supply and demand as the climate changes. 

Intriguing technologies are beginning to help us measure groundwater resources more accurately. A NASA project called GRACE uses two satellites to measure subtle shifts in gravity from month to month. The addition or subtraction of water is one factor that changes the gravity field. 

Declining groundwater levels from 2003 to 2012 (NASA)

Still, “the challenge to metering groundwater is not technological, it’s political,” said Peter Gleick, cofounder of the Pacific Institute, an independent research organization focused on water issues. “There are certain people who benefit enormously from a lack of information and inefficiency—and those people have lawyers.”

And that’s likely why this bill isn’t pushing metering—because its sponsors want it to actually pass. Marcus said that local basins don’t need to use such technology in their sustainability plans. “There are proxies for measurement that are pretty accurate, like farmers’ energy bill for pumping, that can get you fairly close,” she said. 

Still, despite the flexibility built into the bill, the California Farm Bureau Federation opposes it. Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the federation, said, “Groundwater management must protect the property rights of overlying landowners. Otherwise, there could be huge, long-term economic impacts on farms because of the potential to devalue land.”

He attributed groundwater supply problems not to lack of regulation but to “inflexible, outdated environmental policies” as well as population growth and climate change.

The Farm Bureau is calling for more surface supplies as part of the solution to seeming water scarcity, but in places where pumping is increasing, it could ultimately diminish surface supplies, Snow pointed out.

* * *

While groundwater reform and other efforts may get California out of the current crisis, “in five to ten years, a new set of problems will emerge,” said Mike Young, who holds a research chair in water and environmental policy at the University of Adelaide in Australia. The state’s existing water laws “were never designed to deal with the challenges California now faces,” he said. “The system is broken.”

Young speaks from experience. He played a key role in developing improved water entitlement, allocation, and trading systems in Australia and won a national award for his efforts. He said that ultimately California needs that type of radical reform.

He spent last year at Harvard, where he taught a course on policy reform and developed a framework for water management that he said can work throughout the world. He’s currently advising other states and countries that want to reform, including the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Texas.

While each place is unique, “there are some very fundamental principles and concepts that are the same throughout the world,” said Young.

Like many places experiencing water stress around the world, California is exacerbating its water stress by using it inefficiently. “We really need to think about the demand side of the equation more than the supply side,” said Gleick. Opacity of water rights, unmeasured usage, and laws with perverse incentives enable waste.

California’s water rights laws are based on seniority. Unfortunately, there are more rights to water than actual water in many years. “There are a lot of water claims out there and we don’t have a fully adjudicated system,” said water board president Marcus. “What people say are water rights might not be.” In fact, the state has allocated five times more surface water than the state actually has, according to a new report from U.C. Davis researchers.

It’s also unclear how much water some rights holders can take out, said Gray. The most senior water rights, called riparian, are “not quantified,” said Gray. “They are a reasonable share of what’s available.”

And no one knows how much water many senior rights holders are actually extracting because, while they are required to file statements quantifying their surface water use, only about half of them do, said Gray.

Colorado spent 20 years adjudicating all its water rights to address these problems, said Marcus. But in California there’s no movement in that direction, she said.

President Barack Obama tours a field with farmer Joe Del Bosque, his wife Maria, and California Governor Jerry Brown. (Pete Souza/White House Photo Office)

Also, the law has long encouraged waste. It requires water to be put to “reasonable and beneficial use,” which includes supplying cities, industry, irrigation, hydroelectric generation, livestock watering, recreation, and fish and wildlife habitat. “Reasonable use” sounds … well, reasonable, but a “use it or lose it” clause incentivizes profligate use: If you don’t use your historic water allocation in a beneficial way, you forfeit your water rights, said water attorney Gray.

To cope with not just current but future demands on water resources, “you have to build a system that’s better than the one they have,” said Young, referring to some of the governments he’s advising, which does not include California. “And that’s actually not hard.” First, courts need to adjudicate the basins and convert all of the water rights into shares, he said, which eliminates the problem of overdrafting a watershed. “You cannot give anybody a guaranteed volume,” said Young.

* * *

One way California—and other states—has tried to introduce flexibility into the existing system is by pushing market solutions by tweaking laws to make selling water more attractive. “The law explicitly says the transfer of water itself is a beneficial use,” said Gray.

In the market, senior rights’ holders, typically farmers, can sell water to other users, often cities. Montecito, an idyll near Santa Barbara, is famous for sweeping ocean vistas and seacliffs dotted with luxury homes—including one of Oprah’s. The city has taken measures to conserve in recent years, pricing water depending on usage, but in February, the water board declared an emergency and began rationing. 

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Erica Gies is a writer, editor, and photographer, and the co-founder of Climate Confidential.

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