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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Water experts encourage partnerships to address climate change

The Golden State's leaders have ambitious strategies in mind to manage precious groundwater. But scientists and landowners say that partnerships will be the only way forward as the state is further burdened by climate change.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Water experts say that officials must work closely with communities to efficiently manage groundwater systems amid climate change — despite growing animosity among landowners.

Scientists and experts at the nonpartisan Water Education Foundation’s third international groundwater conference Tuesday said that, with so many styles of groundwater management, strong partnerships are the only way to sustainably handle water supplies within and beyond California.

Nancy Vogel, California’s Deputy Secretary for Water, said that one of the greatest obstacles to sustainably managing water is how California farmers use groundwater — water stored within aquifers underground. 

For more than a century, the state regulated surface water with a very complex set of laws, Vogel said. Groundwater has been another story.

"Until recently, groundwater was unregulated. Farmers in some cities essentially mined groundwater. They pumped without abandon, particularly in drought," Vogel said.

California has whipped back and forth from drought to flood within the last decade, causing immense damage to aquifers holding precious water, she added. Governor Gavin Newsom in his first term directed staff to design what is now the state’s water policy roadmap, with strategies to support local agencies and allow state regulators to "nudge" them or take action.

Recent floods helped farmers “lay off” on groundwater pumping, and some regions even showed improvement from subsidence, or ground sinking, Vogel said. 

But, she added: “As we all know, a couple of wet winters aren’t going to fix a century of over-pumping.”

The crops that suck up the most groundwater are a huge part of that conversation, according to Sara Qaderi, an agriculture junior specialist at University of California, Davis. 

Qaderi's research found that small, diversified farms with different kinds of crops use far less water than mass farming operations. Almond crops drink up nearly 59% of all of Fresno's water, for example, and pistachios use nearly 27%. Oranges use the least, at 3%. Landowners could use this knowledge to consider diversifying crops to reduce water use, such as by choosing more sustainable fruits, she said. 

Those demanding crops also affect the quality of groundwater for humans, according to Miranda Fram, program chief of water quality assessments at the California Water Science Center. 

Many areas that are heavily reliant on groundwater for drinking water are also heavily contaminated with harmful minerals and nitrates due to agricultural practices — particularly as planting, feeding and manure runoff from livestock farming increases. Till Angermann of Luhdorff and Scalmanini Consulting Engineers also said that Central Valley dairy farms, with about 1.7 million cows, produce double the amount of manure nitrogen than is allowed for use on crops.

“The very fact that water is being used for irrigation is changing its chemistry,” Fram said. “Using the water to grow crops actually changes the equilibrium in the aquifers."

Communicating the dire need for change to domestic land and well owners is also a racial justice issue, according to Deshamithra Jayaseke of the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute. She pointed out how nitrate contamination is higher in private wells and in areas with large amounts of agricultural runoff, often supplying communities largely composed of people of color or low-income or elderly residents.

Because private wells are not easily regulated, education and partnerships with domestic landowners will be key to improve problems worsened by systemic racism, she said. 

“We need to come to the table with compassion, and understand their constraints,” Kayaseke said.

Matthew Hurley, general manager of the McMullin Area Groundwater Sustainability Agency, emphasized how badly the state needs to work closely with landowners and alleviate “despair” about broad interventions with groundwater. He said that officials must build trust with farmers, explain the science and explore solutions that work for each unique community. 

Hurley works with seven groundwater sustainability agencies managing aquifers within the troubled Kings subbasin in southern San Joaquin Valley. When the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014 to mandate creating those agencies overseeing state aquifers, farmers panicked, Hurley said — and that's where he arrived to educate them.

“If we don’t communicate all of the potential solutions down to the lowest common denominator, it’s not going to work,” he said. “So we said, we’re going to be landowner-centric and we’re going to overcome this negative attitude (that’s) been presented. We’ve educated them and provided some hope."

Others have a more pessimistic view of the chances for change.

Journalist Mark Arax, author of "The King of California”, reserved his harshest criticisms for people who, he said, claim land and water rights and have driven growth beyond what California’s watersheds can handle. Their “plundering” left the state government chasing its tail to regulate farmers, who continued planting hundreds of thousands of acres of almonds during the worst drought in history, he said.

“Today, there are pistachio trees in the bottom of Tulare Lake," Arax said. "There are mega-dairies. This is the hubris that has grown with the crops. How do we rectify this?” 

Looking around a room of scientists, engineers and landowners, he added: “The problem isn’t water redirected to fish and endangered species. The problem is growth, growth, growth — a cancer on the land.”

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Categories / Environment, Government, Science

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