Most states in the US have had long-established groundwater management regulations that all water agencies must comply with, except for California—until it adopted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014. Agencies outside of the state are paying attention.
Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District, commented in an interview, “Everyone is watching what is happening with the groundwater management development process in California. Everybody learns. And for communities relying on natural resources, this is a good thing.”
So what is happening in California? The three separate pieces of legislation signed into law in 2014 require that governments and water agencies that own or control critically over-drafted groundwater basins must implement plans to replenish the basins with as much water as they take out and reach sustainability within 20 years of writing that plan. That due date is 2040. The remaining high- and medium-priority basins have until 2042.
The regulations empower local agencies to form groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) to manage basins sustainably and to adopt groundwater sustainability plans for crucial groundwater basins. There is also a grant program that provides funds, starting at $10,000, for the planning and projects carried out under these regulations.
As of May 2018, 143 groundwater sustainability agencies have been formed by 267 agencies (some agencies join together to form one GSA). For those interested in the details of the SGMA, you may visit www.water.ca.gov/Programs/Groundwater-Management/SGMA-Groundwater-Management.
Many local agencies in California have not waited for state regulations to develop groundwater management strategies. Perhaps the most famous is Orange County Water District’s groundwater replenishment system which has been operating since 2008. It uses purified wastewater to recharge the Orange County Groundwater Basin to protect it from further degradation due to seawater intrusion. It also provides peak wastewater flow disposal relief and diverts treated wastewater flow from being discharged into the Pacific Ocean.
BALANCE AND CONNECT WATER SUPPLIES
States outside of California also have a lot to teach California about their own groundwater management strategies or plans, says Jeff Barry, co-founder of Oregon-based GSI Water Solutions. California goes one step further. While other states require the balancing of groundwater inflows and outflows with recharge, California’s regulations require that there be no undesirable results from projects. For example, GSAs must avoid impacts to surface water- and groundwater-dependent ecosystems like wetlands and riparian areas where a range of species live.
GSI is a specialized consulting firm that focuses on groundwater services, environmental management, and water rights and resource planning in the Pacific Coast states and internationally.
Barry says that managing groundwater adds costs to a water district’s budget. The first order of business for the GSAs organized under SGMA is to decide how the plan will be paid for.
Most projects in other states gravitate to storing water underground, Barry says. They install wells to store a combination of treated stormwater and wastewater treated to meet drinking water standards. In California, groundwater recharging includes a combination of state project water, stormwater, and wastewater treated to the tertiary level. This recharged water is allowed to infiltrate below ground. When surface water is treated to drinking water standards, it is injected into aquifer storage wells for withdrawal during dry summer months.
Other groundwater management projects include pumping allocation programs where a framework is developed for how much can be pumped in a year to recover water levels. This will be happening in basins in California, Barry says, and will represent a big shift for California. “Most landowners have not had to abide by these standards,” he says.
Agricultural areas are already being impacted and are arguing that SGMA is not consistent with California Water Law. Overlying land owners that are irrigation holders have senior water rights over municipalities, cities, and towns, Barry explains. If there are cutbacks in pumping, cities and towns have to go first, he says.
“The problem I see is that the law requires sustainability plans that have to cover the entire basin and the landowner within that basin will still have to comply,” says Barry. Lawsuits have been filed recently by landowners and they will force adjudication, he claims. It is written into California state law that landowners won’t be excused from complying with SGMA. “There’s a pretty high learning curve right now,” he says.
Barry shared an example of true conjunctive use—balancing or connecting surface water and groundwater. A 2011 partnership agreement that included the City of Woodland in a 2011 agreement with the City of Davis, the University of California Davis, and a local reclamation district built a regional surface water supply project to replace deteriorating groundwater supplies with safe, more reliable surface water supplies from the Sacramento River. The project included a jointly owned and operated intake on the Sacramento River, a raw water pipeline connecting the intake to a new regional water treatment facility, and separate pipelines delivering treated water to the cities and university.
The reclamation district was responsible for jointly financing, constructing, owning, and operating the water treatment facility. Construction began in April 2014 and the project facilities were completed in July 2016.
GSI helped the City of Woodland to develop its aquifer storage and recovery system. During periods of lower demand in winter months, unused treated surface water is being recharged into the aquifer for storage using the specially designed ASR wells. During the summer, when there are flow restrictions on the Sacramento River, the recharged water will be extracted, dosed with hypochlorite solution, and conveyed to the city’s distribution system.
The objective is to store treated surface water to improve the reliability of summer pumping and improve the quality of pumped water. Davis will continue to use groundwater during periods when demand for water cannot be met with surface water supplies alone.
GSA PLANS FOR SUSTAINABILITY
The North Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency is one of seven GSAs in the Kings River Sub-basin, in the Fresno area of the northern San Joaquin Valley of California, tasked with developing the Groundwater Sustainability Plan that will return the Kings River sub-basin to health and make it permanently sustainable.
The North Kings GSA Board of Directors, says executive officer Gary Serrato, has worked to make the seven-member board all-inclusive of the local communities. The board includes representatives from the Cities of Clovis, Fresno, Fresno County, and Fresno Irrigation District. The remaining seats are shared by three local irrigation or water districts, City of Kerman, Biola Community Services District, the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District, and California State University at Fresno.
The GSAs are now beginning the work to develop information and impacts to various levels, boundaries, and flows between each GSA and other sub-basins. This information will be used to develop the groundwater sustainability plan and will help determine the future of farming and growth of cities.
The seven GSAs in the Kings River sub-basin are moving forward with coordination agreements. “We are developing a new form of government,” says Serrato. The SGMA legislation has turned the responsibility over to local agencies. And it forces us to go back and look at how we use groundwater, he says. “We are in the process of developing a sustainable plan for North Kings and at the same time we’re developing coordination agreements to work with our neighbors to make the sub-basins sustainable.
“The biggest issue in front of the Kings Sub-basin today is determining which of us will take responsibility for approximately 200,000 acre-feet of overdraft. Too much water is being taken out of the groundwater and we need to replace it,” says Serrato. The seven GSAs will have to agree who is responsible for each portion. SGMA requires the plan to be implemented by 2020. Furthermore, the seven GSAs, including North Kings, have to be sustainable, bringing in or saving to balance out as much water as they take out, by 2040.
Potential work tools to accomplish reductions include constructing new facilities for capturing surface water; conservation; and partnerships for new facilities, land planning within the cities, and what happens when cropping patterns change will be included in the plan.
Also included in this list is land retirement, but this is a sensitive topic since it affects the economies of cities, communities, and the county. “We want our farmers to continue farming and our cities to continue to be vibrant,” says Serrato. The Central Valley is dependent on agriculture and farmers create jobs, equipment sales, and county sales taxes.
Serrato says California has always done groundwater management voluntarily. “Now, we’re required to do it. It’s not an easy task.” For example, recharging groundwater is already being done at the Fresno Irrigation District where Serrato is general manager. It is capturing floodwater when it occurs, filling up storage basins, or even delivering extra water to growers where the water is allowed to seep through the ground to the water table.
Fresno Irrigation District has developed groundwater maps illustrating the flows of groundwater and impacts of neighboring GSAs. “The district has water rights on the Kings River and Central Valley Project contract for the San Joaquin River which allows us to recharge into the underground aquifers in above-normal hydrological years,” says Serrato.
Unlike groundwater districts in other states, California counties do the permitting of water wells, but Serrato says this job may migrate to the GSAs, and SGMA allows for it. Developing a new form of government is a daunting task, but if the local agencies don’t do it, then the counties become responsible, and if the counties fail to do so, the state will take over.
“ONE WATER” EMBRACES CONNECTEDNESS
Sunny Wang, water technology leader for Southern California at Brown and Caldwell, is familiar with what many of the groundwater management sustainability agencies and water utilities in California are planning. In general, he says 143 GSAs as of May 2018 have already formed and are doing good work. “It will be interesting to see what they produce in their respective Groundwater Sustainability Plans,” he says.
The GSAs are in the process of organizing their work and will be producing plans in 2019 which must be submitted to the Department of Water Resources in 2020 or 2022 for approval. The work of creating the projects outlined in their plans must be completed within 20 years.
Wang says that groundwater recharge will likely be a big component. But first, the planners must identify a water resource that can be leveraged to recharge an aquifer. The Soquel Creek Water District near the coast in Central California does not have a wastewater treatment plant so it is talking about taking treated effluent from the City of Santa Cruz’s wastewater treatment plant and purifying it for recharge. In this sense, GSAs are bringing utilities together, he says.
“We’re working with the City of Camarillo in south-central Ventura County, CA, to design a treatment plant to clean up an impaired water supply,” says Wang. A few decades ago, salty water flowed into Camarillo’s groundwater basin. The mound of salty water is just sitting in an upper corner of the basin, but after 1990, it began percolating into the city’s potable water supply. Brown and Caldwell is designing the treatment facility, which will cost over $30 million, and which will improve the water quality of the groundwater basin. The Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, which is the local GSA, is working with Camarillo to have it in operation by 2020. It will take up to 25 years to pump the mound of salty groundwater out and clean it to drinking standards. There is discussion in the community about whether there is a need to shut the treatment plant once the mound of groundwater is pumped out.
Wang says Camarillo imports over 60% of its water requirements from California’s State Water Project but once it can start using the new water supply, it can reduce the amount it is importing and be 100% on local water supplies. The salt content of the current water supply is also responsible for the saltiness of the recycled water the city produces. That recycled water is used for farming irrigation which eventually introduces salt back into the groundwater, bringing the cycle full circle. The new treated water should eliminate the problem, he says.
Another potential source of sustainable water supply is direct potable reuse. The island of Maui cannot discharge treated wastewater into its groundwater basin because of the lava base so officials are looking at direct potable reuse, Wang says.
Los Angeles’ Hyperion Waste Treatment Facility has no groundwater basin nearby in which it could store treated wastewater. Pumping it elsewhere becomes very expensive because of the cost to build a lengthy pipeline through highly urbanized areas. The less expensive route would be through direct potable reuse, Wang says.
Hyperion currently pumps most of its treated waste into the Pacific Ocean, but does import secondary wastewater effluent to the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility where the recycled water is piped to local businesses for irrigating landscapes. The import capability from Hyperion is limited by the size of the recycling facility.
The larger impediment to direct potable reuse is the status of regulations at the state level. The California State Water Resources Control Board is currently reviewing a feasibility plan written by an expert panel in 2016 to develop uniform water recycling criteria for direct potable reuse. A state law requires the control board to adopt these criteria by the end of 2023.
Wang comments that a lot of the challenge in developing regulations for direct potable reuse is that state staff are limited, they don’t have resources, and they often rely on water utilities to prove with protocols and test plans that it’s safe.
The lack of funding throughout the country for water infrastructure repairs and upgrades is well-known. Wang says, “We see more funding for groundwater management than for infrastructure repair in certain regions.” However, if building infrastructure is related to alternative water supply or groundwater management, funds become available. “We’ve seen agencies divert funds from their capital budgets to build alternative water supply projects. Agencies are having to make tough decisions,” he concludes.
Brown and Caldwell has a campaign called “One Water,” a collaborative approach that enhances the community and environmental landscape based on the interconnectedness of all water supplies including surface and groundwater supply, stormwater, wastewater, and energy. One Water strategies often require that we break down the historical barriers and silos with the water sector and establish a more integrated approach to water management and supply reliability, says Wang.
Potable reuse—purifying wastewater and putting it back into the ground—is an example where the One Water cycle is complete, Wang continues. The company is working with water utilities around the country to approach water management using reclaimed water and potable water more strategically.
INCENTIVIZE USERS TO SHARE
“Being able to manage groundwater supplies is important for the future,” says Kristi Shaw, integrated water planning project manager with HDR. HDR has worked with water agencies in California and across the country and is familiar with the approach of groundwater sustainability management and how it varies across agencies, says Shaw. Their proactive approach is productive for securing future water supplies. The goals of reducing reliance on imported supplies during drought, maintaining adequate storage, and prevention of sea water intrusion are drivers in California, she says.
HDR is headquartered in Omaha, NE, and Shaw is in the company’s Austin, TX, office. She has worked with eight states on groundwater projects across the country. She says some of the issues that states and water agencies have to deal with are growth, getting the right amount and quality of water to where it is needed, and managing both groundwater and surface water.
One example is irrigation. As cities get bigger, what does this imply for irrigation systems? “There is potential for persuading irrigators to share supplies with water utilities during wintertime—non-growing time—and increasing water use during growing periods,” says Shaw.
Many otherwise competing interests, like municipal water agencies, irrigation districts, and industrials, are realizing they can save money and resources by working together, Shaw says. Wastewater agencies are purifying wastewater for recycling to irrigators and to industrials for cooling tower water. Everyone working together can meet the needs of each, she concludes.
Nebraska is doing basin-by-basin modeling studies as a tool for future groundwater management. Historically, water agencies in the state have been highly reliant on groundwater supplies. Litigation with neighboring states has led to current conjunctive (shared and balanced system) water management policies, she explains.
Now Nebraska and neighboring states are looking at groundwater and surface water plans to manage that water and better understand its connection to waters of the rivers that run through Nebraska and the nearby states: the Missouri, Republican, and South Platt Rivers. The plans include conjunctive management which is based on understanding that groundwater levels are tied to base flow in the river systems and springtime rains which raise in-stream flows. Generally speaking, aquifer levels 10 or 30 miles away from one site may be higher from one Nebraska basin to another. It’s very site specific, Shaw says.
Texas has prolonged dry times and intense storm periods. Shaw says the future of water supply in Texas is about how to store and protect the water during plentiful times so it can be used in droughts. The Texas Water Development Board creates and updates state water plans every five years which include how regions plan to address their future water demands. The next plan will be released in 2022 and will summarize projected water demand, supplies, and potential future water projects, she says.
Texas’ 16 regions each have planning groups which craft water supply plans for 2020 to 2070 on a county-wide basis for municipal, irrigation, livestock, and industrial users. Each region is different and each has a diverse array of water projects, from drilling new wells to building surface
water projects to water reuse and desalination, Shaw explains.
The southwest corner of Kansas has a long history of supplying water for corn production. The governor has released a water plan that includes incentivizing farmers to conserve water in order to release stress on the Ogallala and High Plains aquifers, which are being pumped at a higher rate than precipitation can replace.
Other water supplies are being looked at to offset groundwater pumping such as evaluating the feasibility of constructing an aqueduct from the Missouri River to the east to deliver water to Southwest Kansas. “We’re seeing greater understanding in areas here where there is high groundwater use and how they can manage levels in the future and sustain the supplies they need,” says Shaw.
Water conservation is seen as one of the lowest-cost efforts because it doesn’t require initial investment, Shaw says. Furthermore, conservation can reduce the cost and need for capital projects.
“We’re seeing greater understanding in direct potable reuse in areas that are drought-prone and are projecting high growth.” Shaw predicts it will gain traction in the future as water supplies become low. “Water-rich states are postponing interest,” she says.
Some states make direct potable reuse challenging with existing policy. There is some interest in Texas. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulates direct potable reuse standards in Texas.
Water utilities have a tall order prioritizing capital projects and strategies to increase water supply, but because they have limited financial resources, they have hard decisions regarding where to appropriate funds.
STORAGE MAXIMIZES WATER PERMITS
The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) in Texas began developing the Aquifer Storage and Recovery project (ASR) in the late 1990s and the initial phase came online in 2004. It has continued to evolve, says Darren Thompson, director of water resources. Its purpose is to store water when supplies are plentiful and to withdraw water for peak shaving purposes in summer months and to fill in supplies during droughts.
Traditionally, San Antonio received all its water from the Edwards Aquifer, says Thompson. Lawsuits prompted legislation to regulate withdrawals from the aquifer in the early 1990s. This led the water utility to develop more water resources, including the ASR.
With regulation came permits which allocate how much water can be drawn from the Edwards Aquifer. It is made up of limestone that discharges quickly and is subject to multiyear droughts. It has no long-term storage capability, explains Thompson, and the permits cannot be wasted. “Whatever is not used by the end of the year, you lose,” says Thompson. Hence the opening for a storage project to store the water not used at the end of the year.
San Antonio fits across three different aquifers, Thompson says. He describes the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer as running from the southwest to the northeast into Louisiana and Arkansas. It is a sand formation with a large storage capacity. Water stored underground in sand instead of a reservoir means no water evaporates and it is protected from contamination.
The ASR is located in the southern tip of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, about 30 miles south of San Antonio. Its need is amplified by the impact of the drought on the city’s water supply: Between 2011 and 2014, the Edwards Aquifer’s water supply was reduced from 20% to 44%. In 2014 alone, it lost 35%. It remains San Antonio’s only storage and recovery project.
The original intent was for SAWS to pump about 22,000 acre-feet per year of water from the Edwards Aquifer to the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to reduce the demand on the Edwards Aquifer. But Thompson says the department learned they could increase the transfer to 75,000 acre-feet per year. Now over 150,000 acre-feet are stored at the ASR, representing over 50% of San Antonio’s total demand.
The ASR has a treatment plant and
a field of 29 wells. Water is piped from the Edwards Aquifer when demand is low and water is sent from the ASR to San Antonio during the six driest months of the year. Piping water from the Edwards Aquifer is gravity fed. Bringing it back from the ASR is uphill with pumping expenses.
“We have budgets for all our different water supplies,” says Thompson. “When we’re in an extreme drought we have access to other supplies, and savings from there can reduce expenses.”
“San Antonio has been in somewhat of a dry period for the last eight to nine months, so we chose to go into drought condition,” says Thompson. There are various stages determining how much can be pumped during droughts. Every well is metered and SAWS provides meter reads to the Water Board every year. “Once a drought is triggered, we have to send monthly meter readings,” explains Thompson. “As we are notified, our pumping will be restricted and the overall reduction is calculated,” he adds.
“This is why the ASR is so enticing, because we can utilize Edwards when there is no drought and store that water in the ASR. This is truly the way to maximize groundwater permits,” says Thompson.
There are two additional sources of water at the ASR. SAWS built a small desalination plant which came online in January 2017. It will clean up brackish groundwater from a formation that is deeper than the Carrizo sands, leaving the stored Edwards water intact.
The ASR has proven to be so successful that a number of cities and utilities are considering similar facilities and have produced feasibility studies but there is no word of further plans, according to the SAWS website.
Another project utilizing the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer is the Vista Ridge Pipeline extending 140 miles to the north. Still under construction, it is expected to come online in the spring of 2020. Almost 18 wells have been drilled and two more are left, says Thompson. Construction has begun on a treatment facility and two storage tanks along the route, plus a delivery site in San Antonio. Once Vista Ridge is complete, it will satisfy 20% of SAWS demand. The utility will not need to develop another supply project until late 2040, he says.
The project is being built as a public/private partnership. Abengoa was the original owner/builder but it dropped out, although it is still a partner in the consortium, according to Thompson. Garney Construction now owns the project and is financing and constructing it. Blue Water in Austin holds leases and permits from landowners along the route and it is also a partner in the consortium, he says. SAWS will buy the water from the consortium.