Thursday, March 10, 2016

Groundwater Awareness Week 2

I have so many things I want to say about groundwater, it won't all happen during #GroundwaterAwarenessWeek.

You can go over to LA Observed to read my post, Superbugs? Toilet to tap is safer than surfing. I'll wait until you come back.

A couple of weeks ago, the California media ran many stories along the lines of California drought: How will we know when it's over? that focus on rainfall. Some stories also included reservoir status with this data visualization from California Water Resources.

There's one big problem with all of this.  How much of our freshwater can we see?  USGS kindly compiled the data for us.  We're fixating on the what we can see (rivers, lakes), while there is 100 times more water that we can't see (groundwater).
Freshwater lakes hold 0.26% of the world's freshwater compared to 30.1% in the aquifers. 
Some people might rightly point out that this is a global average.  What about developed water in California?  That's a valid point.  California has more infrastructure to store and move surface water than the global average.

However, groundwater accounts for 40-60% of water used in California.  We don't know how much for sure because the farm and golf course lobbies don't want to meter and report how much water they are pumping out of the aquifers that we all share.

Most (urban and suburban) Californians get their groundwater through water agencies that do have to report their pumping activities.  I wonder what the objectors have to hide?

Remember the Resnicks?
Years ago, they gained control of one of the largest underground water reservoirs in the nation, the Kern Water Bank on the edge of California's Central Valley. This vast holding system—built with public funds in 1999 to help buffer the effects of droughts—stores water from California's aqueducts and the Kern River; it's estimated to be worth more than $180 million on the open market and has allowed the Resnicks to double their acreage of fruits and nuts since 1994, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The southern San Joaquin valley is a desert.  Storing water above ground would lead to huge evaporative loss, making underground storage the right solution.  We built a water storage system and bought water to fill it.

But, the current laws allow any land owner above an aquifer to pump the hell out of it.  Of course the Resnicks planted ever more permanent crops on their land atop the water bank.  They made their billions buying worthless desert land, lobbying government to bring water to them, then selling the water, either literally or embedded into nuts.

The Resnicks' court battles are much more interesting than Kim Kardashian's Twitter wars, but you wouldn't know it from media coverage.

Read how farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley had their water privatized.

OK, what about climate change? I found this illustrative cartoon in The Impacts of Climate Change on Global Groundwater Resources (Part 3 of 4).

As the planet warms, rain will fall less frequently, but more intensely. In the southwestern US, this will be felt more acutely and total annual rainfall, will continue to drop precipitously. (I couldn't resist the pun.)

We can't do anything about the rain (or lack of it) unless the whole planet decides to emit less CO2.  But, we can control how well we capture that rain and store it underground for a sunny day.  Basically, we need to engineer our environment to move that upper curve upwards to increase groundwater recharge and reduce run-off.  We can't build stupidly any longer.



  1. Getting public funds to pay for water infrastructure and then using it for private profit has a long and storied history in southern California. When I was in high school, I wrote my IB internal assessment paper for history on the Los Angeles aqueduct, the Owens River, and the use of the water -- which was ostensibly for the city of LA -- to irrigate farms in the San Fernando Valley. While researching for the paper, I did some math and discovered that the water that went to LA proper (that is, industrial and residential use) was such a small proportion it was literally lost in the round-off when you considered the total amount of water delivered to the LA area. As in, the aqueduct delivered slightly over 1 billion gallons per day*, and when you subtracted the amount of water consumed for industrial and residential purposes, there was slightly under 1 billion gallons per day remaining. The rest of that almost-one-billion gallons of water went to irrigate farms in the San Fernando Valley that had been purchased prior to the building of the aqueduct, for very little because they had almost no water available to them, by the politicians that engineered the building of the aqueduct. And for that, Owens Valley was ruined as both productive farmland and a viable ecology.

    Over a hundred years later and not much has changed.

    (*I don't remember if it was exactly 1 billion gallons/day, but it was something close to that.)

    1. The Owens valley got screwed. Did you know that, during the 19th century, people dismissed LA as a place that could never be more than a small town because the mountain ranges surrounding it made moving water prohibitively expensive ($, energy)?

      Owens Valley water travels a lower energy path than any of the other imported water sources. That set them up to be prime targets.