Thursday, August 27, 2015

Regulating and Controlling Groundwater

On September 16, 2014, Governor Brown of California signed into law a three-bill legislative package, composed of AB 1739, SB 1168, and SB 1319, collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. that effectively ended unrestricted groundwater pumping in California.

California is the last of the Western states to enact groundwater monitoring and regulate use, though groundwater regulation and attempts at management is still the exception here in the east. Groundwater provides 35%-65% of all water used in California- in dry years groundwater makes up much of the shortfall in irrigation allocations for farmers. In addition, almost 21 million of the total 38 million Californians depend on groundwater for all or part of their drinking water. It was the running dry of small community wells and many private drinking water wells all over the central valley that provided the public acceptance to regulate groundwater.

The Groundwater Management Act was first introduced in 1992 as Assembly Bill 3030, and then modified by Senate Bill 1938 in 2002 and Assembly Bill 359 in 2011. It was only the severity of the current drought when groundwater use was reportedly providing 65% of the water for the state and groundwater levels fell by 60 feet in some places with thousands of wells going dry that Governor Brown and the legislature found the political will to pass and implement the law. Water has always been a contentious issue in California.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act went into effect at the beginning of 2015. The Act requires the state’s Department of Water Resources to identify groundwater basins, and these basins in turn must establish local groundwater sustainability agencies and develop groundwater management and monitoring plans. These plans, which require each basin to achieve “groundwater sustainability” by 2040, must be completed within five or seven years, depending on the priority assigned to the groundwater basin by regulators.

It is expected that the local groundwater sustainability agencies will require registration of groundwater wells, require annual pumping/extraction reports from individual wells, impose limits on well extractions- develop a basis for rationing groundwater, and assess fees to support creation and adoption of a groundwater sustainability plans. The aim of the legislation is to create a regulatory structure to have groundwater basins managed within the sustainable yield of each basin and allocate the usable water. Tricky stuff.

There is certainly a need to ensure that groundwater is used sustainably, but how the law is implemented, the sustainability determined and managed and entitlement to water determined is important and could serve as an example if watersheds are able to successfully manage the groundwater sustainably through droughts and wet years in a manner that is fair and just. California historically has favored command and control forms of regulations that do not easily evolve or moderate with changing circumstances.

Now, however, we have the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission from NASA that has been collecting data for more than a decade and can measure if total groundwater content is stable, rising or declining. The GRACE satellites measure monthly changes in total earth water storage by converting observed gravity anomalies measured from space and can serve as a tool for groundwater management to see if the plans are actually sustainable. Though, unfortunately, the tools available to develop the water management plans are less accurate and it might be difficult to determine if the sustainability plan is actually being implement correctly is simply not a sustainable plan.Communities could become locked into detailed groundwater sustainability plans that simply dod not work.

Our groundwater, too, is at risk. Despite the water rich climate of our region, the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer is under stress and is being used beyond it recharge rate. It is only a matter of time until areas within the historic boundary of the aquifer begin to go dry. Groundwater in the Coastal Plain region in eastern Virginia is being used up. This has been confirmed by measurements of groundwater levels, modeling of the aquifer system by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and measurements of changes in gravity by the GRACE project at NASA.

The rate of groundwater withdrawal from the Virginia Coastal Plain is currently unsustainable. The withdrawal rate of groundwater increased continuously during the 20th century. By the 2003 the withdrawal rates from Coastal Plain aquifers in Virginia totaled approximately 117 million gallons per day. As a result, groundwater levels had declined by as much as 200 feet near the large withdrawal centers of West Point and Franklin, Virginia the home of paper mills. Since 2003 the water level has continued to fall despite the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) regulating groundwater withdrawals in the Virginia Coastal Plain through the VA DEQ Groundwater Withdrawal Permit Program. To make that groundwater sustainable, we need to reduce use or increase recharge.  

Less is known about the sustainability of the Culpeper Basin that feed the private wells in the Rural Crescent of Prince William and areas of Loudoun and Fauquier counties; and my home. I watch how some of my neighbors use water and think of “The tragedy of the Commons,” by Garreth Hardin that was published in Science, December 13, 1968. The concept from the article that has survived is that what is a free and common resource is abused. Hardin said “Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” Because of fluctuations in “renewable” resources it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view. Also, how the resource is owned or not owned can potentially create a resource abusive atmosphere where taking what I can without regard for sustainability is rewarded for a period of time. No groundwater resource is infinite and we need to preserve and protect our groundwater by using it sustainably.

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