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‘Sustainable’ Groundwater? It’s Not a Universal Standard in California

Groundwater in 27 large California basins is overseen by court agreements, which makes them exempt from the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
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Groundwater composes as much as 40 percent of California's total water supply, on average, and more in dry years. A new state law requires groundwater to be managed sustainably, but so-called “adjudicated” groundwater basins are exempt from that law.Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

Next year, a new California law will revolutionize how the state manages its groundwater.

By June 30, 2017, according to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), many groundwater users must form new agencies and begin drafting plans to “sustainably manage” their aquifers. Three years later, they must begin operating aquifers according to those new plans, which will dramatically change how groundwater is used.

There is an entirely different category of California groundwater, however, that is exempt from SGMA. These are the “adjudicated” groundwater basins, so-called because the rules for managing them has been decided in a court of law.

Until the passage of SGMA in 2014, California was the only state in the U.S. with virtually no groundwater regulatory program. So when water users experienced conflict over groundwater, they often turned to the courts. By 2015, there were about 27 adjudicated basins in the state.

Although these adjudicated basins are exempt from SGMA, follow-up legislation in 2015 imposed some new requirements on the adjudication process. While some adjudicated basins are effective at managing groundwater, it is a very different process with different goals.

For instance, adjudication does not require that groundwater be managed sustainably, or even to avoid overdraft. So there is a concern that as SGMA makes one segment of California’s groundwater sustainable, another segment may be on a different path.

Ruth Langridge, an associate researcher and lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, recently led a small team that investigated California’s adjudicated groundwater basins for the State Water Resources Control Board. In a recent conversation with Water Deeply, she explained some of the findings in her report.

Water Deeply: One of the things you learned is that groundwater adjudication is not about sustainability. Why is that?

Ruth Langridge: The court can set out a plan which may result in more sustainable groundwater management. It really depends on how the negotiations go. But that’s not really what adjudication is about, and it’s certainly not required and it may not occur.

Adjudication is not necessarily a friendly process. Often there’s a dispute about a particular problem in the basin. Parties want to establish water rights to determine who’s going to be responsible for fixing the problem: who’s going to pay for imported water, who will have to cut back on pumping and who will not.

Water Deeply: Another surprising fact you revealed is that many adjudicated groundwater basins depend on imported water, such as from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or the Colorado River. Is that worrisome?

Langridge: There’s a heavy reliance on imported water. We found that one reason many basins in Southern California were adjudicated was to facilitate importing water. The fact is that all 19 Los Angeles, Inland Empire and Foothill basins receive imported water, as do a couple of the Central Coast basins.

So that’s a pretty significant number of basins that do rely on imported water. And it wasn’t just the agricultural basins. Many urban basins are pretty heavily reliant on imported water.

There is a concern that imported water is going to be less reliable and more expensive. Many basins are trying to significantly reduce that reliance. You see that everywhere now.

A major reason for adjudication was to figure out what to do about overdraft. One way to resolve this was to use imported water in a variety of ways. Many of these basins are now looking into recycled water, and some into capturing stormwater. But it’ll take a little while for that to happen, I think. There’s still such a heavy reliance on imported water.

Water Deeply: I was surprised to learn that adjudication often doesn’t even address groundwater overdraft. How can that be?

Groundwater basins in the Los Angeles area that are being managed according to a court-approved adjudication agreement. These basins are exempt from the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which became state law in 2014. (State Water Resources Control Board)

Groundwater basins in the Los Angeles area that are being managed according to a court-approved adjudication agreement. These basins are exempt from the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which became state law in 2014. (State Water Resources Control Board)

Langridge: Here’s the interesting thing about overdraft: It can be defined in many different ways. So depending on how you decide you’re going to define overdraft, that will determine how the basin will manage its groundwater.

Most of these basins were overdrafted prior to adjudication. A lot of the groundwater users wanted to be able to get imported water and adjudication was going to help facilitate that, and also figure out who would have to pay for the imported water. So if users overdrafted the basin, they could go to court.

Sometimes the court will set out a stipulation that requires a certain amount of cutbacks to try to bring the basin into hydrologic balance. It doesn’t necessarily look at what has happened previously. So you can have a big deficit in your basin and adjustments rarely address that. They don’t try to recover the basin. And that is still true with adjudications today.

Goleta Basin was the only basin I found that addresses what I call “accumulated overdraft,” and it also created a groundwater drought reserve.

Water Deeply: Has adjudication been a tool to support urban growth in some locations?

Langridge: Creating specified rights to groundwater can facilitate water transfers. Often the transfers are from agricultural users to urban users, and that can support additional municipal growth.

Mojave is an example where agricultural users transferred water rights to urban districts in the Alto sub-area – the area closest to Los Angeles. The population of the cities in that area grew significantly. But it is a desert area, and if a severe drought occurs that could be a problem. You cannot fallow a city.

Water Deeply: Since adjudicated basins are exempt from SGMA, is it possible some water users will choose to adjudicate to avoid regulation?

Langridge: That, I can’t honestly answer. I can just say that is the rumor that you hear. That is under discussion. But the new (follow-up) laws do try to address that because that was, again, a rumor that you heard discussed a while ago. But adjudication is really complicated and can take a long time, so it’s not necessarily an easier choice.

Water Deeply: You found that small groundwater users and disadvantaged communities are rarely included in the adjudication process. Why is that?

Langridge: Don’t forget that if you go back to the 1970s – when there was a big rise in the adjudication partly because that was when State Water Project water became more readily available – I don’t think you even heard the term “disadvantaged communities” at that time. The only basin I’m aware of that addresses disadvantaged communities today is the Central Basin in the most recent amendment to its adjudication judgment.

With respect to small pumpers – say, less than 5 acre-feet [6,167 cubic meters] a year – one reason presented for not including them in an adjudication is that they don’t have much impact on the basin’s condition. But interestingly enough, one thing that jumped out at us that we hadn’t thought about is that as time went on, there were fewer and fewer pumpers in some basins, and both water rights and water use became concentrated in a smaller number of users because, sometimes, the bigger ones bought out the smaller ones.

Water Deeply: Is record keeping and public access to those records adequate in adjudicated basins?

Langridge: When we started to try to compare the different basins, we found a real lack of consistency in how terms are defined. So “safe yield” is defined in many different ways, “overdraft” is defined in many different ways. And these definitions are going to affect how you decide to manage the basin. Some basins had good websites, some didn’t. And the material is often presented in reports in very different ways.

So, again, if you’re trying to do some kind of assessment of adjudicated basins, it’s not easy. Some basins had a lot of easily accessible and pretty comprehensive reports. In other cases, there was not even a good website.

Reports should be a little more comprehensive to enable getting a good handle on what’s going on in the basin. And there has to be some consistency in how the information is presented in reports, so you get a clear summary of what the findings are and you don’t just get 25 pages of graphs. In a number of instances where access to basin information was limited, we received feedback that reforms were under way to improve the situation.

Water Deeply: Do these adjudicated basins account for climate change and population growth in their water planning?

Langridge: I would say that was not a consideration in adjudication. It could be in other kinds of documents that need to be written up for an area. But there is nothing that requires an adjudicated basin to address these issues. Whether there is sufficient consideration of climate change in the management of groundwater – in both adjudications and under SGMA – is one area that we are researching.

Actually, DWR [California Department of Water Resources] is now attempting to set up some best management practices for climate change analysis in the new groundwater sustainability plans required under SGMA. There’s an effort being made to really start to address climate change. I think there is definitely an increasing interest.

Sometimes, it just takes certain things to all of a sudden bring an issue out front for people to be thinking about. And in this, I think the drought was a wake-up call for many basins.

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