As we end 2022, the weather has turned very wet throughout California. What a blessing. While having a wet winter will not by itself solve our long-term imbalance between the developed water supply and current water demands, it will buy us some breathing room.
The reality is that there is no Groundwater
Sustainability Plan (GSP) anywhere that works if we don’t get rain and snow in the winter. All the GSPs include some variation of groundwater replenishment in the wet years. Starting the implementation phase of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) with three very dry years – 2020, 2021 and 2022 – has put a lot of pressure on the law because groundwater depletion during the past three years has been significantly higher than the “normal” groundwater drawdown that all the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies used in developing their plans. When you combine this reality in the Central Valley with the collapse of the Colorado River system, you have the elements of a water crisis. And in fact, that is what we are facing in the American southwest.
But it is in crisis that the seeds of a shift in attitude necessary to solve the problem are planted. For the last couple of decades, the predominate policy message coming out of our leaders was that we needed to conserve more. Water conservation was the buzzword. But water conservation alone will not solve the water crisis. There is going to have to be investments made in water infrastructure in combination with smarter water management in order to eliminate the gap between supply and demand.
Certainly, in the Central Valley, farmers have adopted a new paradigm. It will be very interesting to see how much flood water gets diverted onto farmland for on-farm recharge if this winter turns out to be wet. That will help. But ultimately the flood flows generated in Northern California – which for the most part are not captured, but sent out to the ocean – need to be modestly skimmed and sent south in order for significant recharge of the aquifers of the Central Valley to occur. Interestingly, Southern California has as much or more to gain as the Central Valley from slight increases of water diversions in wet years. In order to increase wet year water diversions from the Delta, a more environmentally friendly Delta diversion must be constructed. The export water needs to be separated from the fish because it is adverse fish impacts that restrict the ability of the water projects to fully utilize the pumping capacity that is already in place.
It is the desperate position Southern California finds itself in with all three of its water import sources, (the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the State Water Project) in serious trouble that creates the political opportunity to get something significant done. While it may be true that Sacramento doesn’t care much about the Central Valley, it cannot ignore a real water crisis in Southern California. That is where the interests of the Central Valley and Southern California align. We both need more wet year water from Northern California for storage for the dry years and only the Central Valley aquifers have the capacity to store the amount of water that the southern part of the state will need to get through the extended droughts.
In essence, this is the substance of the Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley. The plan calls for building fish friendly diversions in the Delta, essentially French drain style intakes under the bed of the water way, that take the water without disturbing the fish. That surplus water then gets delivered through the existing pumping facilities and aqueducts to places in the Central Valley where it can be stored underground to be pumped up in the dry years. Milk Producers Council is an active member of the Blueprint and there are lots of conversations occurring around the state that seem to be viewing this idea favorably. Time will tell how this all plays out, but I am hopeful that the circumstances this time will lead to real progress.
Geoff Vanden Heuvel
Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs