Advocates urge for holistic management of California’s most precious resource
In the early 1900s, when the Owens Valley along central California’s eastern border became the city of Los Angeles’ primary source for water, it forever changed the natural, political and economic landscapes of the area.
A century later, in a plan befitting a fictional thriller, deep-pocketed investors attempted to wrest control of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin in San Luis Obispo County; they’ve been thwarted, for now, by voters. The connection—and possible relation to the North State—was a key theme during a conference hosted by Chico-based water advocacy nonprofit AquAlliance last week (Nov. 17-18) at Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room.
“I hope this region is going to be smarter and learn from history,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, addressing 70 attendees during the second day of the conference (55 attended the first day).
The event—titled “Water for Seven Generations: Will California Squander or Protect It?”—gathered 20 presenters from across the state and one from Washington, D.C.
Scientists delved into research, such as the impact of river levels on salmon survival and the geologic composition of the Lower Tuscan Aquifer. Attorneys examined impacts of legislation, notably the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA) that soon will govern subterranean lakes and rivers. Residents of dammed or diverted river regions—including the Owens Valley—shared their stories.
During the two days, common conclusions emerged:
• Water is a holistic resource that policymakers approach piecemeal.
• “Battle lines” are not just Northern California versus Southern California or agriculture versus urban use, but also public versus private.
• Climate change should be, but isn’t always, a consideration in water plans.
• The past is indeed prologue.
Bruce Herbold, a biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, tied the latter two threads together when he pointed to the state’s history of multicentury droughts, as recorded geologically.
“Going back before 1900 is terrifying,” he said. “Climate change is something to worry about, but just being in California is scary enough.”
All of California’s water is interconnected; however, government officials and the public have overlooked many of those connections, such as the relationship between surface water and groundwater.
Surface water comprises lakes, rivers and streams; groundwater flows beneath the surface. Depleting groundwater stores can cause a corresponding drain on surface water, drawn downward to replenish aquifers. Moreover, rain and snowfall contribute to both levels.
“All groundwater comes from surface water—we don’t precipitate from the center of the earth,” noted Kit Custis, a hydrogeologist.
Scientists have come to recognize this link, but legislators treat the sources separately. Until recently, California had myriad, complex regulations for surface water yet virtually none for groundwater. SGMA established a framework for local control of underground basins, with policies to be adopted by 2022.
The Paso Robles plan materialized in the wake of SGMA. Adam Keats, a Bay Area water rights attorney, detailed how private interests—notably Harvard University’s endowment and several large ag businesses—bought up land holdings over that groundwater basin where it intersects the State Water Project (the system including Oroville Dam). They then attempted to form a water district, which would have had legal standing to control storage, pumping and sale of water under SGMA. However, in a March 2016 special election, voters defeated the effort by a 3-to-1 margin.
“It wasn’t paranoid hyperbole to think there was interest to create a privatized water bank,” Keats said, adding that the risk still exists wherever there’s a convergence of geology, the SWP and the right economic factors. “What other aquifers are in the same situation?”
Daniel Pritchett, an Owens Valley conservationist, explained how LA’s Department of Water and Power agreed to mitigate ecological impacts of “desertification” (turning a wet area into a desert). A consequence, Pritchett lamented, has been environmental interests competing with each other for water.
“That’s the problem with not planning,” Pritchett said.
This goes back to other piecemeal ideas about water. Speakers discussed major projects—particularly the proposed Sites Reservoir (slated for the valley west of Maxwell) and the twin tunnels under the Delta—as apparently designed independent of each other and the concepts behind climate change.
Some of the most pointed critiques came from Roger Moore, an environmental attorney from Berkeley who delivered the keynote address the second day. Assessing a century living with dams and diversions, while looking ahead, he said new proposals and plans rely on climate assumptions from the 20th century that do not reflect emerging patterns.
“Climate change will fundamentally transform water supply and the environment throughout the state,” he said. “If we leave that out and kick the can down the road, none of the environmental assumptions will make sense.”
Speaking specifically about groundwater, but applicable to all water in regard to supply and land-use planning, Moore said: “Decision-makers and the public have the right to know what the consequences will be.”