For a New Culture of Water in California

Just a year after Jerry Brown signed into law The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the Union of Concerned Scientists has published a riveting report titled “Measuring What Matters: Setting Measurable Objectives to Achieve Sustainable Groundwater Management in California.”

Thirty-eight compressed pages, with a clear, concise text, along with eye-catching tables, charts, photos, a glossary and a bibliography, the report was written by Juliet Christian-Smith and Kristyn Abhold with inputs from academics, hydrologists and environmentalists from all across the state who took part in a series of roundtable discussions in June and July 2015.

“Measuring What Matters” throws down a gauntlet. From now on, no reading, thinking citizen will be able to beg ignorance when it comes to the future of water in California. While the report might be too technical for the average water user – the authors use words such as “stochastic” and concepts like baselines and thresholds – it provides food for thought for everyone who cares about water in California. The report is available onlineĀ here.

“We are facing some of the hottest and driest conditions on record,” Christian-Smith and Abhold write near the conclusion of their report. “Sustainable groundwater management offers a new pathway that will allow the state both to mitigate and to adapt to climate change while also increasing water reliability in the future.”

A climate scientist who grew up in Boston and who moved to California in 2001, Juliet Christian-Smith has already lived through two major droughts. A dogged researcher and the editor of the journal, Sustainability Science, she also ventures into fields and talks to farmers as well as hydrologists. As the lead author of “Measuring What Matters” and a long-time student of crisis and resilience, she’s perhaps the ideal expert to talk about drought, ground water, and the politics of H20.

Q: Congratulations on the completion of the report “Measuring What Matters.” It seems like a landmark document in the story of California water.
A: Thank you. We’ve been briefing state agencies. I’ve been happy with the response so far.

Q: All government agencies seem to have secrets, but water agencies seem to be more secretive than others. Do you have ideas why that is?
A: Water is power. It’s been the path for many cities, companies and families to prosper all across the West and in California. Books and movies have told that story. The whole water realm has been siloed and made technocratic. Only a few people in the room make decisions about a state-owned resource, though the Department of Water Resources has scheduled a series of public meetings. You can see them on theĀ website.

Q: In order to manage water we have to measure it and monitor it, don’t we?
A: That’s the starting point. In the past we have had good, but vague goals such as improved groundwater management. Unfortunately that has not produced sustainable groundwater management. We need to do it differently.

Q: The word drought appears in the report but it’s not there at every turn and in every place.
A: We’ve had panic about the drought. When it rains we might have panic about flooding. What seems certain is that we will have more extreme conditions, more drought and more flooding. Groundwater storage is essential whether we have flood or drought. Since we’re losing snow pack there is only one other place to go for water and that’s underground.

Q: It’s essential to be resilient, isn’t it?
A: Whatever comes along we have to be ready for it. We’ll probably get drier dry and wetter wet. So we have to rethink our whole water system. In addition to prolonged winters without rain, we now know that there are massive impacts of climate change. Hotter temperatures have exacerbated the drought. We lose a huge amount of water through evaporation.

Q: Your report calls for big changes, doesn’t it?
A: They have to do with life styles today and life styles fifty years from now. Some of the changes we have in mind are technical and scientific, but we also have to create a new culture of water. What’s needed is more transparency when it comes to the politics of water. We have to move from a model of command and control to one of openness and inclusiveness and to listen to a broader spectrum of voices than ever before. Adherence to democratic principles is essential and so is collaboration. They’re not explicitly stated in the report, but they’re part of the background.

Q: Your report has lots of details but it doesn’t get into specific crops such as almonds and grapes or fish in the streams.
A: We don’t want to raise flags. We mean to move the conversation forward and acknowledge best practices. It’s important to realize that when it comes to water we’re not starting from scratch. In some place in California, people are already on the road toward sustainable water; some solutions are already working.

Q: I don’t think you use the term “tragedy of the commons” but that concept also seems to be implicit in the report.
A: Forests tend to have discrete boundaries. We can see where they begin and end. But water flows between groundwater basins; we can’t set standards for one without also examining standards for the adjacent basins. They all have to be managed in a coordinated way.

Q: I’m more familiar with the concept of the watershed than the basin? Is a basin larger than a watershed?
A: There are probably 500 ground water basins in the state. Some are smaller, some larger. Most of them incorporate multiple watersheds. When we talk about basins we’re talking for the most part about valleys.

Q: Reading the report and thinking about this drought of ours I was reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in which Alice says that she can’t remember things before they happen. The White Queen says, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
A: The water situation is Alice in Wonderland. The water managers are afraid of going down into a rabbit hole. We’re trying to tell them that change need not be scary, that they can take a step at a time and that the world won’t come crashing down on their heads.

Q: You point to Australia and suggest ways that California can learn from that continent’s recent experience with drought.
A: We can also learn from Texas, though California doesn’t like to hear that. Texas is ahead of California when it comes to statewide groundwater management.

Q: The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that Governor Brown signed into law on September 6, 2014 says we have to achieve “sustainable yield” – “long-term resilience of a groundwater system” – by 2040. That seems a long time away. Most anything could happen between now and then.
A: We would like the process to be faster but the clock started ticking as of January 1, 2015. They can’t be going in the opposite direction of sustainability. The trend-line needs to change, even if it’s a gradual shift.

Q: I think that there is more water literacy now than at the start of this four-year drought.
A: There is, though I sometimes get frustrated with media stories about water. No one is reporting why we’ve not been prepared for this drought. That seems odd given the fact that we live in a state that experiences drought on a regular basis. There are few stories about the systems that lead to behaviors that are maladaptive. We have to look at the ways that it’s all connected. We will have another drought. It’s time to prepare for it right now.