The Hidden Treasure of California's Groundwater

Graham Fogg
July 15, 2016

Prof. Graham Fogg shares his seasoned perspective on how we can know how much groundwater and surface water we have and how to manage them together with Water Deeply. Visit Water Deeply for the full article

California can stave off a water crisis if it learns to manage both surface water and groundwater, which hasn’t happened yet. A better understanding is also needed of what’s at stake if overdrafts in groundwater are ignored.

AS CALIFORNIA SUFFERS its fifth year of drought, much attention is being focused on the state’s groundwater – a critical source and one that is being stretched.

What is happening to it, and how can scientists and policymakers manage it more effectively?

New Era of Water Scarcity

One way to think about groundwater is to compare it to dark matter – which is invisible yet accounts for most of the matter in the universe. Similarly, hidden beneath the surface, groundwater is invisible yet accounts for about 95 percent of all circulating freshwater on earth. While the science of groundwater is mostly well-known and tested, the effective management of it, in concert with management of surface water, remains a frontier, like dark matter.

For an analogy closer to home, consider the world of finance. Imagine all of your money is in two bank accounts. You know the balance, deposits and withdrawals from account A, but they are largely unknown for account B. Here’s the kicker: When the balance in account A gets depleted, uncontrolled, largely unknown amounts of cash are withdrawn from account B. How would this financial strategy work for you? Of course, it would be disastrous, yet this is how we commonly mismanage our interconnected accounts: A, surface water and B, groundwater.

Multiple Timescales

The good news is that, as in financial shortages, most water crises are avoidable if we truly manage both surface water and groundwater.

Why is this not really happening? Why has there been so little progress in dealing with water crises? I believe a big part of the explanation lies in the lack of motivation and transparency about the “accounts.”

There is little motivation to live within our means unless the consequences of our over-consumption are made sufficiently clear.

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: Entering a Grand Experiment

If most of the population deems the measure unnecessary because, for example, they are doing fine and their wells still produce lots of clean water, the regulation is doomed to failure and may generate more resentment than anything else.

A key hurdle in making SGMA effective, then, will be giving the water users greater motivation by making transparent the ultimate consequences of ignoring the laws of groundwater nature. Accomplishing this is not unlike researching dark matter. It requires a concerted effort through the use of measurements and computer models. Fortunately, the technology to do this in groundwater science already exists, although there is much work to be done.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.