Unquenchable Thirst: Groundwater Bill Could Shift California’s Water Management Approach

Water runs through the Colorado aqueduct
A view of the Colorado River Aqueduct looking east. (Photo via Bruindon/Creative Commons)

LOS ANGELES – The latest salvo is California’s long-running water wars, SB307, has the potential to emerge as one of the most important pieces of water regulation in recent years. Although its target was narrow — it was designed to undercut the capacity of Cadiz, Inc. to pump annually upwards of 16 billion gallons of groundwater in eastern San Bernardino County and sell it to ever-thirsty Southern California — the legislation may prove to be far-reaching in its consequences.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on July 31, requiring independent review from the State Lands Commission, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Water Resources to ensure that pumping from the groundwater basin doesn’t harm the natural or cultural resources at the site and in the surrounding watersheds. Focused on short-term impact, columnist at the Desert Sun, decried the bill as a job-killer and legislative overreach. The Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee read the law as yet another Golden State rebuke of the Trump administration and made much of the legislation’s protection of imperiled Mojave Desert springs and species. The environmental impact of the law was a point that Sen. Dianne Feinstein confirmed: “If Cadiz were allowed to drain a vital desert aquifer,“ she declared, “everything that makes our desert special — from bighorn sheep and desert tortoises to Joshua trees and breathtaking wildflower blooms—would have been endangered.“

Bighorn sheep relax along the Barker Dam trail in Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo via Jasperdo/Creative Commons)

These are all important considerations to be sure. But the new law is actually more expansive in reality and reach. Although the enduring battle over the control and distribution of white gold dates back to the Spanish conquest of Alta California in the late 18th century, this particular piece of 21st century legislation offers an important twist in the state’s longstanding struggle to secure a sustainable supply of this most-essential resource.

In this case, the play has been for desert groundwater. That unusual wellspring is a bit of a shock, not least because ever since the Gold Rush it has been Sierran snowmelt that has dominated the state’s mirage-like fantasies of an unending stream of water that would blast open mineral riches, fill reservoirs, irrigate farms and lawns, drive industrial production, and wash windows, cars, and sidewalks. This natural tap would forever boom the state’s economy. But could the desert, specifically the Mojave Desert, one of the most arid regions on this blue planet, become a rich repository of water? That has seemed a contradiction in terms.

Adding to the confusion is that the main actors in this most-recent drama are not the usual suspects. This story isn’t about water grabs devised by big ag in the Central Valley. It isn’t about a scheming Metropolitan Water District (though it would surely benefit from the deal). Neither the City of Los Angeles nor the State of California, each of which in the past has diverted vast amounts of other region’s water for its own ends (and ticked off a lot of people in the process), are the creators of this particular narrative.

Taking center stage instead is a clutch of venture capitalists who have invested in the Cadiz Project, and whose investment has underwritten the purchase of 34,000 desert acres and associated water rights in San Bernardino County. Theirs is a supply-side operation, a tantalizing pool of water that has not yet been integrated into California’s highly complex water-market. Should it ever be so — and you can be certain that Cadiz will do everything in its power to make that happen, SB307 notwithstanding — then its privately owned groundwater will become a cash cow for Wall Street profiteers.

The latest salvo is California’s long-running water wars has the potential to emerge as one of the most important pieces of water regulation in recent years. (Getty Images)

Standing in their way is this new law, the promise of which is that it unflinchingly calls the question on water agencies and consumers: why are we still fixated on securing new supplies of hitherto unexploited water, by hook or by crook? Cadiz, after all, is one more shimmering proposal, in a long line of such illusions, that ever-dry Southern California can solve its water crises by pumping out the Owens River Valley, the Colorado River, or that trio of NorCal rivers, the Feather, Sacramento, or the San Joaquin. Absent this law, and the Mojave would be yet another victim of our unquenchable thirst.

The adoption of this law sheds light on a new approach to water management: the smartest, least expensive, and most efficient method of building a more water-resilient state is to tackle the demand side of the equation. That’s at the heart of an argument by Peter Gleick, president Emeritus of the Pacific Institute, in a 2018 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, he probes the new water-management paradigm that he dubs the “soft water path,“ a refocusing on the “multiple benefits water provides, improving water use efficiency, integrating new technology for decentralized water sources, modernizing management systems, committing to ecological restoration, and adopting more effective economic approaches.“ By rigorous conservation we can do more with less.

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That prospect isn’t new. It has been demonstrated in the implementation and constant improvement of low-flow technologies that are required features in building codes across California. It was strikingly manifest, amid a punishing four-year drought, in the rapid decrease in urban water use following Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 2015 declaration of mandatory emergency restrictions to cut consumption by 25%. It is evident as well in Orange County’s highly successful groundwater replenishment operation — to date, the world’s largest — that captures and treats stormwater and effluent to the EPA’s highest standard for potable water; the project currently serves more than 500,000 people a year (with an expansion underway to increase its capacity to an estimated 850,00 consumers by 2020).

This system is making a critical contribution to the county’s ambition to become water independent by 2050, an ambition that the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability believes Los Angeles County could replicate. In its 2018 report, the center highlighted “potential pathways to a transformation of the city’s historical reliance on imported water to an integrated, green infrastructure, water management approach that provides water quality, supply, flood control, habitat, open space and other benefits.”

Although galvanizing policymakers, politicians, and taxpayers to invest in these proven, real-world outcomes will not be easy, UCLA researchers believe “the recent extreme drought on water supplies throughout California has created a new urgency to increase the city’s ability to provide a secure, resilient water supply through local sources.“ SB307 might accelerate that transition by helping break our bad habit of relying on Cadiz-like pipe dreams, which the late historian Norris Hundley argues in “The Great Thirst“ was “born of an earlier era when abundance encouraged abuse.“ If it does so, then it will mark a significant turning point in the state’s contentious water history.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Elemental: Covering Sustainability is a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.