Data for Sustainable Groundwater Management

December 07, 2015 | Water in the West | Insights

Water in the West has launched a new series of four workshops focusing on the data and models needed to implement California’s new and historic groundwater management law.

Passed in 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires the formation of “Groundwater Sustainability Agencies” (GSAs) to coordinate the activities of the state’s fragmented local groundwater management agencies – more than 2,300 of them – across designated groundwater basins. These GSAs are tasked with developing and implementing specific “Groundwater Sustainability Plans” (GSPs) to sustainably manage the state’s 127 most important groundwater basins. 

Many local jurisdictions and water agencies overlie more than one groundwater basin, and almost all basins are covered by multiple water agencies, county governments, and other water organizations.  These overlapping jurisdictions increase the potential for fractured governance, system redundancies, and conflict.  This situation on the ground contributes to a fundamental problem in California – limited availability of data related to aquifers and groundwater use.  Some data, particularly data about the amount of groundwater pumped by individual users, has not been collected in many parts of the state.  Some data is collected, but either closely held by water users or “siloed” in the multiplicity of relevant agencies. 

Ultimately this lack of data and data sharing could hamper effective implementation of California’s groundwater legislation.  Data about aquifer levels and characteristics and about groundwater pumping are critical to assessing current management of each basin against the SGMA’s key benchmark goal of avoiding “undesirable results” (including chronic lowering of groundwater levels, land subsidence, and surface water depletions). GSAs need good data and models to understand the role that management actions will have on a basin, and will have to implement effective monitoring to assess whether GSP measures are having the desired results. 

California’s long history of unregulated groundwater use and the fractured nature of water governance in the state will make meeting the new legislative requirements a challenge. Water in the West’s data workshop series hopes to tackle some of these challenges by asking key questions including whether existing data and models are adequate for developing effective sustainability plans, what data the state agencies will require in reviewing plans, whether local agencies have the funding and personnel needed to improve models and collect data, and what the best pathways to better data collection and sharing practice are? 

A series of four workshops that Water in the West is co-hosting with the Gould Center for Conflict Resolution, in conjunction with California State University’s Center for Collaborative Policy, will bring together state policy makers and regulators, local water managers, groundwater consultants, and others to identify key technical and policy tools that will help overcome some of these barriers. Key goals of the workshops are to assess the gap between the current technical frameworks in basins around the state and what is needed to plan for and achieve sustainable management, to develop a common understanding of a path to closing that gap, and to identify additional research that would help produce tools to provide a sounder technical basis for localities to implement SGMA. Workshop topics include: 1) Groundwater Models; 2) Groundwater Data, including Groundwater/Surface Water Interactions 3) Advanced Technologies and Geophysical Methods; and 4) Decision Support Tools. 

Workshop 1: Groundwater Models

Water in the West held their first workshop on the topic of groundwater models in November. Groundwater models – computer models that can simulate and predict aquifer levels – can serve as useful tools to help agencies explore how different management actions might affect their groundwater basin over time. Results from a survey conducted by Water in the West this past summer show that the majority of water districts in California already use groundwater models as a planning tool. However, groundwater models are likely to play an even larger role under SGMA as agencies need to incorporate longer planning timelines and predict compliance with the law’s “undesirable results”. 

“Groundwater models are going to be an important tool in resource planning under SGMA,” said Tara Moran, Program Lead of Sustainable Groundwater at Water in the West, who organized and led the workshop, “but local agencies have a wide range of available resources to improve models, as well as highly variable management problems and aquifer characteristics.” The main goal of the workshop was to understand the adequacy of existing groundwater models in addressing the new requirements under SGMA and to foster the development of coordinated datasets and tools to support groundwater model development. Moran provided some key takeaways from the workshop:

  • Agencies will need to work collaboratively across their basin to ensure that the basin as a whole is managed sustainably. This is true with respect to individual basins, as well as with hydrologically connected basins.  

  • Basins will need to coordinate data related to broader hydrologic and climatic issues that will affect aquifers and the model inputs. However, doing so will require proactive action by agencies, as SGMA does not set out any clear requirements for how this should occur. 

  • Data are essential to groundwater model development. Many agencies, water districts, irrigation districts, and others do not share their data. This long-held reluctance to share data is a major barrier to effective implementation of SGMA. State and local agencies will need to work collaboratively to promote better data sharing and to develop consistent, statewide datasets that can be serve as the basis for ongoing model development. 

  • Engaging the community in the groundwater modeling process can foster a more in-depth understanding of the groundwater basin and management issues being considered. Community engagement can also generate more “buy-in” for long-term management actions.  Collaborative modeling holds a great deal of promise as a tool for GSP development.

  • Local agencies will need financial and technical guidance and support from the state for the development and ongoing use of groundwater models.

Look for the findings from the workshop series and groundwater data survey in reports and publications to be issued beginning in February 2016.   

Additional Resource

CALIFORNIA’S SUSTAINABLE GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT ACT OF 2014: Recommendations for Preventing and Resolving Groundwater Conflicts