Groundwater Sustainability Is Needed More Than Ever
By Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida
The immediate emergency of COVID-19 has been a powerful reminder that the most valuable things in our lives are our families, friends, and the welfare of our communities.
The current pandemic is a threat to those closest to us today in a way that presages what we will experience on an accelerating basis due to the climate emergency. In a place like California's San Joaquin Valley (SJV), Latinos account for 70 percent of COVID-19 cases, even though they represent 42 percent of the population. Improving access to clean and affordable water even as the pandemic grows more urgent, is critical to reducing the types of burdens worsened by the COVID-19 crisis. Continuing the hard work on groundwater sustainability required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) could lessen the impact of future crises in the valley. The low level of preparation communities have experienced around the pandemic, echos what these same communities face for water management on a daily basis and will face with future climate change threats unless fundamental changes are made locally.
Thousands of People in the SJV Live Without Reliable Access to Water.
California is the wealthiest state in the most prosperous country in the world, and yet, there are close to one million people living without reliable access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. Most of these people are concentrated in disadvantaged communities in the SJV. California identifies disadvantaged communities as areas that experience disproportionate levels of a combination of poverty, air and water pollution, high unemployment, and high rates of cardiovascular diseases and asthma. According to a report from the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, residents in these communities are over 60% Hispanic.
The SJV is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing more than half of California's agricultural output with over 200 different crops and annual revenue of about 20 billion US dollars. The astonishing volume of water that agriculture requires has led to over-exploitation of groundwater and the continuous lowering of groundwater levels that has impacted water quality and quantity.
Groundwater is the primary source for household water needs and agricultural water supply. Yet, thousands of people are unable to drink and use the water in the SJV, because there are multiple contaminants in it. Some of the water pollution comes from natural sources and includes substances like arsenic, but most of it has emerged due to agricultural practices. These contaminants include pesticides and nitrates, which are linked to cancer, birth defects, and blue baby syndrome.
In years with average precipitation, water flowing in California's rivers from rain and melted snowpack meets about 60 percent of the state's water demand and groundwater meets the remainder. However, during dry years water supply sources shift and put severe stress on groundwater levels. During the California drought from 2012 to 2016, groundwater use, mostly from agricultural water pumping, grew to 80 percent in some regions of the SJV increasing overdraft. Groundwater overdraft occurs when water extractions exceed recharge into an aquifer. An analogy is your bank account; extract more money than is put in, and your account will go dry. Aquifers are like a shared account, with some people taking out more than others. Consequently, thousands of domestic wells ran dry, unable to reach water due to lowered groundwater levels, in large part due to increased agricultural water pumping, and affecting thousands of people across the valley.
We think about drought as standalone events, but in reality, human actions triggered by droughts can have effects that continue long after the drought has ended, like permanently lowering the water table. In the SJV, the last drought has permanently reduced the capacity of some aquifers because overdraft left air in between soil particles instead of water, and the soils subsided eliminating the space for water storage. Overdraft also leads to infrastructure damage from land subsidence, that is when the ground levels drop, plus reduction of surface water, and an increase in water quality problems. That range of concerns brought by overdraft formed the basis of SGMA.
Groundwater Sustainability Plans Could Fix Part of the Problem but Are Currently Inadequate.
SGMA passed in 2014 and is the first legislation in California to mandate sustainable management of groundwater resources. SGMA is intended to bring about groundwater sustainability by the year 2040. Local water agencies describe the means to achieve this goal in their Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs). For those interested in the details of SGMA, here is a thorough description of it. The focus of this post is on the latest developments.
The 21 most critically over-drafted groundwater basins submitted their GSPs at the beginning of the year and are now under review by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). External reviews of these plans argue that some of them do not sufficiently address current and future impacts on disadvantaged communities. For example, the Groundwater Leadership Forum (a group of organizations funded by the Water Foundation focused on ensuring the success of SGMA and of which UCS is part) also reviewed several GPSs and found gaps in how drinking water, climate change, stakeholder involvement, managed wetlands, and groundwater-dependent ecosystems were addressed in the plans. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) reviewed 36 plans submitted for basins overlapping the SJV. They found Kings Basin (surrounding Fresno) stands out for having the highest number of domestic wells that may go dry, about 600 of them, under the proposed water level sustainable thresholds and yet the local groundwater plan considers that an insignificant impact from continued overdraft. This is concerning and unacceptable. Public comments can be consulted in the SGMA portal from DWR.
I, and many others are concerned that multiple GSPs have questionable integrations of climate change projections. GSPs are considering numerous projects to tackle their local overdraft, yet they are not planning for the uncertain future that climate change is bringing. To reduce some of the vulnerabilities that we see now, GSPs need to integrate climate change and show benefits on the range of future scenarios.
Another concern is that on May 14, the Governor announced a $40 million cut on funding for SGMA. Part of the money was expected to support 37 new staff positions at DWR to uphold its statutory obligation on reviewing GSPs. While the budget still allocated $26 million of existing Proposition 68 bond funds to help with implementation projects in critically overdraft basin, it is unlikely that DWR will have the capacity to review the GSPs thoroughly. However, the governor's budget did prioritize safe and affordable drinking water and the State Water Board approved $130 million for 2020-2021 to projects that support such objective on vulnerable communities.
Without Bold Action and Preparation, Climate Change Threats May Bring Similar Impacts to Those of COVID-19.
The lack of drinking water causes many residents in the valley to rely on bottled water as their primary source for drinking and cooking. Panic buying at the beginning of the pandemic left stores across the valley without bottled water. In the case of COVID-19, unsafe and unreliable access to water has endangered a multitude of low-income communities by preventing them from performing protective, hygienic acts, handwashing, in particular, and forcing them to go to public water supply kiosks. As we've all learned, hand washing is one of the most necessary measures needed to slow and stop the spread of a virus. Without a correct implementation of groundwater sustainability plans under SGMA, many of these risks will continue.
Shelter in place orders resulted in people losing their jobs and hence, their source of income and being unable to pay utility services. Small utility services were also impacted because of low economic margins of operations in which small drops in income translate to being unable to provide service. Fortunately, many organizations and individuals wrote a letter to Governor Newsom that prompted him to issue an executive order protecting homes and small businesses from water shutoffs.
We now have the opportunity to give meaning to these current hardships by learning from them to prevent hardships from climate change. Climate change is a threat intensifier. In this case, the threat is a virus, and historical inequities and water vulnerabilities increased its impact on the most vulnerable among us. An example of the unpreparedness of the system to support our vulnerabilities during times of crisis is seen in the case of school children who rely on school lunches as their main meal of the day but are now unable to access this resource due to school closures. Some farmworkers, while cataloged as 'essential' by the federal government during this crisis, are undocumented and were not part of the stimulus package. The height of irony is farmworkers struggled with access to food distribution when they needed it.
There Is No Scenario Where Water Is Not Absolutely Necessary to Lessen the Impacts During a Crisis.
One of my colleagues wrote that moments of crisis often expose the weak points of a system. In the SJV, the weak points of the water system have been exposed for years and won't be strengthened without managing water resources sustainably. This is evidenced by the number of people in the SJV without access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. Considering that about 95% of valley residents depend on groundwater for at least part of their water, it is critical that GSPs explicitly include strategies for addressing some of the current and future water issues in the SJV.
Numerous, various kinds of climate threats will come, whether they develop as floods, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, or other climate hazards, we need to be prepared and do everything possible to improve sustainable water management for all. While future climate-change-derived crises most likely will be different than COVID-19, there is no scenario where water is not absolutely necessary to lessen the impacts.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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