Groundwater doesn’t get quite as much attention as other water sources in discussions of sustainability. For one, it’s underground and out of sight, and it isn’t quite as compelling as raging rivers and powerful rainstorms. But groundwater, which is stored in aquifers below the Earth’s surface, is crucial to many local communities and ecosystems around the world. Thirty-three percent of the public water supply comes from underground, and is especially critical in rural areas. It even serves as the only water source in some major cities where surface water is limited. As climate change and recent droughts highlight water scarcity issues, implementing sustainable groundwater management is increasingly important.
California Prioritizes Groundwater
In the midst of California’s recent drought, which officially ended in April 2017, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The bill directs communities to form local groundwater management agencies that would ensure aquifer sustainability by 2040 or 2042, depending on the state of the basin.
Although the law laid out these goals for local communities, it didn’t provide much guidance on how to achieve them. To fill this gap, groups such as the University of California’s UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) released guides for meeting the law’s requirements and achieving groundwater sustainability. Here’s what they suggested.
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The groups largely agreed with California lawmakers that regional initiatives, rather than statewide ones, are the best way to approach aquifer sustainability. The condition of aquifer levels and how that water gets used varies from location to location, so localized efforts are most often the best way to address it.
Community involvement through public meetings and comment periods and participation in committees is a vital part of California’s groundwater management strategy. Participants need to be informed, which the associations’ guides sought to help with. Input from local experts, such as scientists, educators and consultants, would also help make the process more efficient.
The ACWA also suggested the state provide more guidance to communities by establishing a state definition of sustainable groundwater management, create minimum requirements for management plans and develop a set of best practices. Some experts have also proposed states should step in if local governments don’t meet minimum requirements.
Steps to Sustainable Groundwater Management
So, what steps do the UCS, ACWA, UC and the other organizations suggest communities take to ensure sustainability of underground water supplies?
Communities should start by defining what sustainable groundwater management means for them. An official state-adopted definition could help with this, but local leaders might also want to establish one of their own.
ACWA suggested this definition: “‘Sustainable groundwater management’ is the management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing unacceptable related environmental, economic or social consequences through the development, implementation and updating of plans and programs based on the best available science, monitoring, forecasting and use of technological resources.”
Before you can create a plan to manage local water basins, local groups need to know what they’re working with. It’s crucial to understand the basin levels, conditions and risks in your area. Water budgets and hydrologic models, which describe what is happening in a basin and why, play a vital role in this. UCS list four questions all communities should answer:
- What challenges are we facing? Communities should identify risks so that they can figure out how best to address them.
- What impacts are these challenges having? Determining whom groundwater issues are affecting and how can help local agencies set priorities.
- What are the boundaries of our basin? Some basins have physical barriers that put them entirely within a particular county. Other basins span multiple counties. In the latter situation, neighboring communities will have to agree on a plan.
- How do future projections play a role? UCS suggests communities assess whether forecasts of future impacts take into account climate change, population growth and other factors that might affect water demand.
3. Set Objectives
Once local leaders understand the condition of their basin, they can set goals for what they want to accomplish with their sustainability plan. In its guide, UCS discusses setting a minimum threshold — which are failure points — and measurable goals, which are sustainability objectives that should be met by the 2040 or 2042 deadline.
4. Develop a Plan
Next is the development of the actual plan. This process should involve the community, local leaders and subject matter experts. The resulting strategy should balance community values and needs with environmental concerns.
These plans should include strategies for monitoring groundwater, permitting wells, recharging groundwater, preventing overdraft and meeting water demand. They also need to include funding methods, which could consist of management fees, grants and loans.
Under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, local groundwater management agencies must adopt a plan by either 2020 or 2022, depending on their classification. Because Californians use groundwater for 40 percent of their water during typical years and even more in dry years, these plans will have a wide-ranging impact.
As climate change worsens worries over the availability of water, we may see more states implementing measures to protect groundwater. These water basins provide a vital resource that will likely only become more important, so it’s crucial we’re proactive about protecting it.