Groundwater provides more than one-third of California’s water supply in typical years and as much as 60 percent during dry years. It serves as a crucial “savings account” to help mitigate the effects of droughts and climate change. Yet despite its essential role, mismanagement and drought have put the state’s groundwater system under considerable strain.
Just two years ago, California still lacked statewide regulations for groundwater extraction. Overdrafting of basins and sub-basins has led to saltwater intrusion, damaged infrastructure and land collapses. Groundwater extraction during the drought has happened at such a fierce rate that changes in groundwater levels can even be observed from space, Michael Kiparsky and Holly Doremus of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, noted in a recent op-ed for Water Deeply.
In 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the first extensive statewide groundwater management planning program. Stakeholders consider the legislation to be historic, and while it will take decades to implement fully, it has raised hopes that the state can reverse its poor groundwater management record.
Preserving California’s groundwater supply in the years ahead is both a formidable challenge and a great opportunity. Meet seven of California’s top experts driving the conversation on this crucial topic.
Hydrologist Jay Famiglietti and his team at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory use satellite hydrologic monitoring to understand changes in the Earth’s water and track critical water losses. Famiglietti’s research has shown that the past few decades have been rough for California’s Central Valley aquifer. “We are mostly depleting the groundwater and that groundwater has been in long-term decline, basically since the day we started pumping it,” he told Water Deeply.
Famiglietti has argued that California is beyond sustainability and that the state will need to make significant changes, especially in agriculture, if it wants to get a handle on the issue. “We’re trying to grow food for the nation using only California water and it’s killing us,” he said. “That’s why we are literally running out of water.” Famiglietti is on Twitter @JayFamiglietti.
Tina Cannon Leahy
Attorney Tina Cannon Leahy is senior staff counsel with the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office of the Chief Counsel. She previously worked for the California Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Cannon Leahy is one of the chief architects of California’s groundwater bill. “The story of how California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – popularly pronounced as ‘Sigma’ – is an example of how what occurs ‘overnight’ can be a century in the making,” Cannon Leahy wrote in the intro to a March 2016 paper detailing SGMA’s history. Cannon Leahy tweets at @tinacannonleahy.
Tara Moran combines a deep interest in the science of groundwater with a strong desire to devise practical solutions. Moran, the program lead for sustainable groundwater at Stanford University’s Water in the West, a project of the Woods Institute for the Environment and Bill Lane Center for the American West, recently spearheaded a survey that polled key players in groundwater management in California about data collection and sharing practices, as well as the data challenges they might face as SGMA is implemented.
Moran told Water Deeply in a recent interview about her surprise at one of the main findings of the study. “People really felt that they needed more standardization of methods and a common data-sharing platform. They really felt that this exchange of information was happening and they weren’t able to do it and as a result they weren’t able to manage. That was huge,” she said.
A recent study of the history and current conditions of California’s adjudicated groundwater basins revealed that court adjudication of the state’s groundwater basins has focused more often on resolving conflicts among water users than on sustainable groundwater management.
The study was commissioned by the State Water Board and led by Ruth Langridge, a researcher with the Center for Global, International and Regional Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a continuing lecturer with the Legal Studies Program. Langridge has long been interested in law and policy related to water and natural resources, as well as environmental governance and institutional change.
Esther Conrad, a fellow at Stanford Law School’s Gould Center for Conflict Resolution, focuses on collaborative approaches and collective learning in water governance. She worked with Ruth Langridge on the 2016 study of California’s adjudicated groundwater basins and is also researching the role of technical information in developing a shared understanding of groundwater basin conditions. Both projects are aimed at informing the implementation of SGMA.
Graham Fogg is professor of hydrogeology at the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at the University of California, Davis. As a frequent blogger and speaker, he is one of California’s most vocal groundwater experts, working on topics such as groundwater contaminant transport, groundwater quality, water resources sustainability, aquifer vulnerability and basin management.
“While the science of groundwater is mostly well-known and tested, the effective management of it, in concert with management of surface water, remains a frontier, like dark matter,” Fogg wrote in a recent op-ed published on Water Deeply. He’s on Twitter @Gefogg.
Thomas Harter, the Robert M. Hagan Endowed Chair in Water Management and Policy at the University of California, Davis, focuses on groundwater and agriculture, the biggest water user in the state. He established his research program in agricultural groundwater hydrology at the University of California Kearney Agricultural Research Center in Fresno County, and continues to develop it at U.C. Davis.
He focuses on “nonpoint-source pollution of groundwater, sustainable groundwater management, groundwater and vadose zone modeling, groundwater resources evaluation under uncertainty, groundwater-surface water interaction, and on contaminant transport,” according to U.C. Davis. Harter frequently blogs and speaks about sustainable groundwater management for the state’s agriculture and his analysis has been featured in local, national and international media. He’s on Twitter @wasserstille.
Related Reads on Water Deeply:
Juliet Christian-Smith: Leave California’s ‘New’ Water in the Ground
California’s Groundwater Sustainability Challenge
Michael Kiparsky & Holly Doremus: How to Create Efficient Groundwater Agencies
New Groundwater Found Deep Under Central Valley
The Key to Saving California’s Groundwater
Graham Fogg: The Hidden Treasure of California’s Groundwater
Jay Famiglietti: California’s Groundwater Crisis
Chronic Water Scarcity Threatens Food Production
You can also read the first story in our Experts to Watch series: Nine Experts to Watch on California Water Policy.