Jan. 31 marked a major milestone for building groundwater sustainability and climate resilience into California’s complex and increasingly stressed water systems.

It was the first major planning deadline for implementing the state’s historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. State leaders passed the law in 2014 to ensure California manages its groundwater sustainably for people, agriculture and wildlife for generations to come.

On Jan. 31, the 21 regions with the most depleted groundwater supplies were required to submit plans to balance their groundwater supply and demand within 20 years. When successfully implemented, these plans will prevent a repeat of many of the impacts we experienced during the last drought: wells drying up and land sinking, resulting in rural residents running out of water and millions of dollars of infrastructure damage.

Why groundwater matters

Groundwater accounts for about a third of California’s water supply in an average year and as much as half of the supply during a drought. It’s crucial to growing the food that we eat in California and across the country. Prior to SGMA, we paid little attention to how much of this precious, finite resource we were withdrawing from the ground.

Thanks to SGMA, tens of thousands of people across the state are now paying attention to groundwater. Local agencies have hit the ground running to pull together groundwater sustainability plans that will serve as the foundation for groundwater management moving forward.

The best decisions are informed by accurate information. One challenge has been the lack of accurate information on groundwater demand, use and available supply. Filling this data gap will be critical to informing management plans.

More information on how local agencies will balance supply and demand is also still needed; many plans have focused on increasing supply while going into little detail about how to reduce demand, which also will be required.

New strategies for a new era

California is a state known for its creativity and innovation. We’ll need to leverage both to significantly reduce the economic impacts of less groundwater pumping.

Technology frequently leads to innovation. For example, Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District is using satellite data to create a new online accounting platform for our growers to track their water use more accurately. Similar to a bank statement, the platform will show users their water supplies (credits) and demands (debits) for each parcel they own, with information updated at least monthly. This new platform could significantly reduce the need for expensive meters.

Additionally, we plan to use this platform as a foundation for a water trading program, developed in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund, to increase flexibility by facilitating the movement of water between landowners while protecting disadvantaged communities and ecosystems. We are intentionally using open-source software so that the platform can be easily adapted and used in other regions.

Turning land-use changes into new opportunities

Decreasing groundwater use will require some land to be taken out of production, which can negatively affect surrounding communities if done haphazardly. EDF is working with landowners to identify the most strategic way to convert farmland to other uses that create multiple benefits, such as more habitat for wildlife, more recreational opportunities, opportunities for alternative energy, and improved flood control. We’re lobbying the state for funding to compensate farmers for such actions.

Successfully implementing SGMA also will require local government agencies and residents to collaborate more closely and think creatively about how to turn the potential negative impacts of land-use changes into new opportunities.

The state’s recently released Water Resilience Portfolio emphasizes the paramount importance of collaboration to prepare California for a future with climate change. Similarly, we’re going to need all hands on deck to make our groundwater supplies more resilient to climate change. Of course, implementing SGMA will not be easy. But looking at how far we have come already, we are optimistic.

Eric Averett is general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District. He can be reached at eaverett@rrbwsd.com. Christina Babbitt is the senior manager of the California Groundwater Program at Environmental Defense Fund. She can be reached at cbabbitt@edf.org.

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