Groundwater security, for the long term

Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Imported Colorado River percolates into Coachella Valley’s aquifer, replenishing 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

By Lauren Adams

Under recently enacted legislation, local agencies in California are required for the first time to manage groundwater pumping and recharge sustainably.

The law empowers local groundwater agencies to manage and use groundwater “without causing undesirable results,” leaving it up to them to determine how to best achieve this goal. Within the next six to eight years, agencies in groundwater basins subject to critical overdraft must adopt plans that put these areas on a path to sustainability by 2040.

A major factor complicating such long-term water planning is climate change. Failing to account for a changing climate will put agencies at risk of “undesirable results,” even if they are otherwise well prepared.

California has already experienced shifts in runoff from spring to winter. Scientists predict continued shrinking in snowpack and increased variability in temperature and precipitation, resulting in more frequent heat waves, longer droughts and more intense floods.

For groundwater, this means demand will rise in dry times, particularly for irrigation, and recharge will be less consistent. In times of water scarcity, groundwater provides more than 60 percent of water supply in some regions, compared with about 38 percent of California’s total water supply in normal years.

Modernizing and sustainably managing groundwater basins lays the foundation for climate change readiness, but more actions can be taken. The key is to make the system more reliable.

Adaptation strategies such as groundwater banking and managed aquifer recharge can help. But for the long term, to protect against more erratic water availability under climate change, a thoroughly integrated approach to water management is needed.

Groundwater basins in overdraft. Source: California Department of Water Resources, 1980

Groundwater basins in overdraft. Source: California Department of Water Resources, 1980

Managing groundwater, surface water and stormwater systems conjunctively, along with innovative water efficiency and conservation strategies, will help stabilize if not increase the amount of water available for use.

For example, Orange County Water District reports that implementing an integrated approach to water resources management allowed the district to more than double yield from their groundwater basin. Clearly defined groundwater rights make management more secure so people can trade water if they so choose.

At the least, managing for climate change will help local groundwater agencies prepare for natural climate variability. Recent analysis of tree rings in central California found that in the past 2,000 years the region often experiences periods of 14-16 years of overall wetness or dryness – a duration that exceeds many of todays’ water-planning horizons. Managing for natural variability, such as 14-16 years of below-average dryness (or, better, for droughts lasting more than 100 years as occurred in medieval California), will make it easier to manage other local problems, such as evaporative losses.

Taking a long-term approach to groundwater management will result in more resilient groundwater basins and a more secure water system for California.

Lauren Adams is a graduate student in water resources engineering and a 2014 fellow with the Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship (IGERT) program at UC Davis. She was an organizer of an IGERT workshop in April on California groundwater and climate change. IGERT fellows Amanda Fencl and Katie Markovich contributed to this blog.

Further reading

California Senate Bill 1168, Senate Bill 1319, Assembly Bill 1739. Three-bill legislative package known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014

California Department of Water Resources. 2014. California Water Action Plan

California Department of Water Resources. 2014. “Managing an Uncertain Future”. Vol. 1, Chapter 5, California Water Plan Update 2013

California Department of Water Resources. 2014. “Conjunctive Use Management and Groundwater”. Vol. 2, Chapter 8, California Water Plan Update 2013

Groundwater Sustainability Plans: New Territory or Untrodden Ground?” Western Water Blog. Stanford University. Oct. 27, 2014

Hayhoe, Catherine, et al., 2004. “Emissions pathways, climate change and impacts on California,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 101 (34). 12422-12427

Hutchinson, Adam. 2014. “Conjunctive Use and Aquifer Recharge”. Presentation to CCWAS IGERT workshop, April 16, 2014

Kretsinger, Vicki, Thomas Harter and Tim Parker. “Modernizing California’s Groundwater Management”. California WaterBlog, June 22, 2014

Lund, Jay and Thomas Harter. “California’s Groundwater Problems and Prospects”. California WaterBlog. Jan. 30, 2013

Meko, David et al., 2014. “Klamath/San Joaquin/Sacramento Hydroclimatic Reconstruction from Tree Rings”. Draft Final Report to the California Department of Water Resources

Souza, Christine. “For Groundwater, Local Management Proves Effective”. AgAlert. Aug. 6, 2014

Taylor, Richard et al., 2013. “Groundwater and Climate Change”. Nature Climate Change. 3. 322-329

The Future of Groundwater in California’s Changing Climate”. Workshop organized by the Climate Change, Water and Society IGERT, UC Davis. iTunes podcasts. April 16, 2014

Upcoming Event


California’s Yolo Bypass is a grand experiment in reconciliation ecology, a new approach to species conservation.

Rather than restore the engineered Sacramento River floodplain to some natural state, scientists and conservation groups are exploring exciting possibilities for a re-engineered landscape that allows native species and human uses to coexist.

Their research indicates the floodway would make a productive salmon nursery and seasonal feeding ground for water birds at little or no cost to farmers.

The Dec. 9 symposium brings together several of the key investigators — engineers, ecologists and economists — for a daylong public discussion on how farming and floods might be reconciled with fish and fowl.

Sponsors: Delta Science Program | UC Davis Center for Aquatic Biology & Aquaculture | UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Tuesday, Dec. 9,  9 am – 5 pm
UC Davis Conference Center, Ballroom B
Free and open to the public
Watch for agenda at

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7 Responses to Groundwater security, for the long term

  1. Rahul Ranade says:

    A practical challenge in California to integrated and long-range planning is that surface and groundwater are sometimes management by different political or administrative entities.

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