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Blog Post · June 16, 2015

Getting to Groundwater Sustainability

David Orth’s involvement in California water issues spans nearly three decades, and in that time he’s seen at least four droughts, serious declines in Central Valley groundwater tables, major floods in the Central Valley, and a host of other water challenges. But to hear him tell it, nothing was quite so daunting as working on the recent state groundwater law. Orth is general manager for the Kings River Conservation District, a California Water Commissioner, and a key participant in the negotiations leading up to the enactment of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. We spoke at a recent event in Fresno about the challenges facing the new groundwater law.

PPIC: What keeps you up at night regarding the new groundwater law?
Orth: The new law has really elevated the standard significantly, from voluntary management to a much higher bar of sustainability. It will be critical to get people who use the water involved in solutions to groundwater problems, and avoid protracted litigation. The tools we have include a few that I expect will be more easily embraced, but when we start talking fees and pumping limits, I’m afraid the reaction we might get will be for people to retreat to their corners and lawyer up. It’s also hard for stakeholders to fully understand the scope of the problem, since you can’t see it. Helping to educate stakeholders and then working collaboratively with them to get buy-in on solutions will be key.

Another huge challenge is land use. There’s a pretty big conflict between the economic objectives of growth and development of the land-use agencies and our ability to cap our water use. How we find that balance will be critical. The land-use agencies are concerned that new development, urban and agricultural, could be restricted by limited water supply, resulting in significant negative economic impacts. But I think sustainability requirements will create certainty, and in the long run, more solid and consistent economic conditions.

PPIC: What is the most important thing that local agencies should be doing now to prepare for the changes that the groundwater law will bring?
Orth: There are three things, really. First is to organize the various local agencies—both the water and land use agencies—to create the governance structure and leadership systems for regulating groundwater. In the Kings Basin, for example, we have about 40 to 50 local agencies that need knitting together. Second is the outreach component I mentioned. In the Kings Basin, we’re been heavily engaged in outreach and education, and I think it’s the most important thing we need to do. And third, there’s the need to gather data. Again, the Kings Basin has a bit of a head start—10 years ago we started an integrated planning process to eliminate over-drafting of our groundwater, and we’ve developed models and monitoring programs to support that objective. A good data set will inform outreach and also good solutions, so we need to do these things concurrently.

PPIC: Do you think this drought has changed people’s perceptions of the need for better groundwater management?
Orth: There is definitely heightened awareness of the drop in groundwater, and the need to do things differently. There’s greater awareness both politically, in Sacramento and at the local level. Less than five years ago, we couldn’t have done this law—groundwater was a no-touch area. The grower community is still kind of split, but there’s a lot of recognition that things have to change.

PPIC: What gives you hope for the future?
Orth: Six months ago, people were saying this law would be a disaster. Now that’s changing, and there’s broad acknowledgment that it’s needed, and probably not as bad as they thought it would be. Mindsets have changed in a very positive way. The other thing that gives me great hope is bringing the different agencies together to talk about solutions in an integrated way. The kind of integrated planning we’ve been doing for 10 years in the Kings Basin is now being re-created across the state. There’s more collaboration among cities, different types of agencies and counties. This collaboration gives me a lot of hope.

Read “Why Farming Needs the New Groundwater Law”
Learn more about Kings Basin groundwater management planning


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