Can California’s New Sustainable Groundwater Management Plan Turn the Tide on Drought?

DroughtPhoto by redcharlie on Unsplash

It looks like the state of California is heading towards another parched dry season.

Measurements taken by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) at the start of April (when the state’s snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range is normally at its peak) revealed that the amount of precipitation during the wet season was as much as 40% lower than average this year. Since California’s groundwater supplies are supposed to be replenished from the melting snow from the mountains, the DWR Director Karla Nemeth is forecasting another “critically dry year” for the state.

This is particularly bad news, given that 2020 was already an extremely dry year, which precipitated the state’s worst wildfire season on record, burning 4.1 million acres of land (double the previous record) and claiming 31 lives. And it is feared that last year’s devastation was just a taste of things to come as annual rain and snowfall continue to stay well below average as a result of climate change, leading to hotter and drier summers.

Due to its location and topography, California has always tended towards the drier and hotter side when it comes to its climate – the state actually has the honour of being home to Death Valley, often considered to be the hottest and driest place on Earth. But until recently, the state has been very lax in managing its scarce water supplies. Thanks to historic land laws, property owners were able to extract water from under their land without limits, which helped the state become North America’s farming nexus (supplying a 30% of the country’s vegetables and 60% of its fruits and nuts). But widespread, intensive agriculture sucks up 80% of the state’s freshwater supplies, which means that in drought-prone years, little to no water is left for households, especially those that live in rural or marginalised communities.

But, there is reason for some cautious optimism. As a result of the devasting four-year drought that ran from 2012-2016 the state passed a slew of legislation designed to make its water use more sustainable. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (Sgma), passed in 2014 and implemented in 2016, is the cornerstone of this initiative, as it designates water as a shared resource, and imposes rules and limitations on its use, including for the agricultural sector. In practice, this means that the DWR will reduce or completely cut off water supplies to farmers in the critically parched Central Valley, with the result that prices for certain produce could go up as up to a 1m acres of farmland may have to be left fallow due to insufficient water for irrigation.

In addition, in 2019, legislators implemented the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, in order to allocate $1.4 billion over the next decade improve access to safe drinking water for the state’s 1 million residents who live near contaminated water sources.

And, after years of waiting, these sustainability initiatives are final getting off the ground. On April 23rd, as part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Grant Program, the DWR award a $26 million grant to fund “capital project investments to improve water supply security, water quality and the reliability of domestic wells”. It is hoped that by improving the management of groundwater resources, the state will be better able to ride out longer and more severe droughts. One of the ways in which the state plans to do this is through the construction of wells in the counties of Central Valley that will collect stormwater to help refill critically depleted underground aquifers.

It is also hoped that the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan (which plans to allocate up to $2 trillion in critical infrastructure upgrades to help not only create jobs following the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, but to also make the country more resilient to the effects of climate change) will provide the state with a much-needed cash injection to help complete its drinking water projects.

And while these efforts are probably too little, too late for this year at least, there is hope that over the coming years, the state can start turning the tide on its water woes.

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