Nature Conservancy aims to shift focus on drought to one number: 1.5 million

150 150 Justin Ewers

(photo credit: Matthew Grant Anson)

For Jay Ziegler, California’s precarious water situation was evident long before the drought made dangerously low reservoirs, fallow farmland, and looming water shortages the issue across the state. The instability of the state’s decades-old water system, in Ziegler’s view, can even be summed up in a single number: 1.5 million.

“The most conservative estimate you hear is that our water system is 1.5 million acre-feet out of balance in an average year—even before the dramatic acceleration of well-digging and development we’ve seen during the past two years of drought ,” says Ziegler, director of external affairs and policy at the Nature Conservancy, a longstanding Economic Summit environmental partner. “In other words, we’re taking more water out of the ground than Mother Nature is putting in on a sustainable basis.” And not just a little more: 1.5 million acre-feet is about as much water as two to three million households use in a year.

With this daunting number in mind, the Nature Conservancy is pushing state leaders this year to make water investments that support communities most impacted by drought, while also more sustainably meeting California’s needs—“for people, for farms, and for the environment,” as Ziegler puts it. The leaders of the Economic Summit shared a similar view in a February letter to the governor and Legislative leaders.

Ziegler is quick to acknowledge that the administration—and the leaders of the governor’s drought task force, in particular—seem to share the Nature Conservancy’s long view on water issues. It was the California Department of Water Resources, after all, that produced the study in 1998 estimating a statewide “overdraft” of 1.5 million acre-foot each year. The governor’s updated California Water Action Plan, released in January, emphasizes the importance of “sustainable” water policies that strike a balance between public health, protecting the environment, and supporting a stable California economy.

“Many of these proposals are very positive and on track to achieve a more sustainable water balance—and provide for a bright future for California,” says Ziegler. “We are particularly pleased that Gov. Brown has approached the Water Plan on a system-wide basis—integrating strategies from upper watersheds, where 60 percent of California’s water supply falls as snow and precipitation, to urban water resources management in a more holistic way.”

Getting more specific about state water goals

But there is more that can be done, and Ziegler and the Nature Conservancy are pushing state leaders to be even more specific about the state’s water goals—and exactly how they can be accomplished. The Conservancy laid out its proposals in a December letter to the administration that called for a “vision statement” for state water policy that would mobilize water managers around a single objective: getting the water system back in balance.

The letter even put a number on it (one that will sound familiar): The Nature Conservancy called on the state to support a blend of conservation actions, water-use reductions, and alternative water supplies that will generate at least 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next five years.

There are ways the state can get this done, says Ziegler, but it will take more than simply putting money into existing storage facilities or even the water recycling and reuse projects supported by environmentalists. Instead, Ziegler thinks the state needs to take a fresh look at the situation: “First, we need to recognize what’s happening by understanding our water balance in a much more specific way so we all understand the linkage between groundwater and surface water resources. Based on that understanding, we can all develop and ‘buy into’ a smarter and more sustainable water management strategy with appropriate roles for water management agencies, local government, and state agencies.”

Ziegler hopes to start where the biggest problem is: groundwater. Unlike the dams and aqueducts most people associate with water infrastructure, the invisible groundwater system is the source of water for almost half the state’s population in dry years. As the Legislative Analyst’s Office pointed out in a report released this week, it’s also the least-regulated and least-understood part of the water system. The state doesn’t currently have a statewide method of regulating groundwater use, and its locally-based approach to monitoring is still largely voluntarily. Even more important is the disconnect between groundwater law and water science: The state manages surface water and groundwater separately, even though groundwater levels have a substantial impact on the flow of water on the surface and vice versa.

Drought emergency legislation enacted this month offered the promise of some action on these issues—making groundwater recharge projects eligible for $472 million in grant funds, while also allocating $14 million for groundwater management.

A statewide approach to groundwater

Ziegler, though, believes these efforts could be more focused: “The administration has drawn attention to those areas where we know groundwater basins are most out of balance—the lower San Joaquin and some places on the Central Coast. That is understandable, but we need to take a larger, statewide look at groundwater resources. Given the time it takes for groundwater basins to recover—it may be 20 years—we may be at a tipping point in managing groundwater in some places where we can better manage water resources to avert tomorrow’s crisis and make sure that we have water in the ground when our next drought occurs.”

To accomplish this, the Conservancy is pushing the state to expand its approach to managing groundwater. “It would be a mistake just to focus on the most distressed areas today and miss areas that may be in decline,” says Ziegler. But without robust groundwater monitoring and management, the state can’t be sure which basins are in balance and which are in decline. “We need a broader strategy to identify areas where we need to invest in monitoring, water conservation, managed groundwater recharge efforts, alternative supply, and water storage strategies. If we look at this drought like a ‘fire alarm,’ we need to do much more than just put out the current fire.”

The Nature Conservancy hopes to convince state leaders to allocate more funds for groundwater monitoring in the current budget and other state actions this year. Such a program could be funded through legislation or a revamped water bond. The Conservancy is also working with the Summit to expand local financing authorities that could allow regions to do more not just to monitor groundwater—but to protect wildlife, restore natural ecosystems, and prepare for the next drought. 

“To do any of that,” says Ziegler, “you have to go back to monitoring: We have to get to a place where we have much better understanding of regional water supply, demands on that supply and use information for better water management—both regionally and on a statewide basis. We are at risk of focusing in one place while tomorrow’s crisis goes without notice for too long.”

A crisis that could be even more daunting if the state keeps depleting its water resources at a rate of 1.5 million acre-feet  a year.


Justin Ewers

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