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What Canada can learn from California’s drought and groundwater laws

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  1. Groundwater and surface water need to be managed together – Groundwater has long been California’s safety net in times of drought, a resource to which water users have turned when surface water is in short supply. However, one of the most significant consequences of the state’s drought and diminishing surface water availability is that groundwater well drilling and pumping have been ramped up to unprecedented rates.

Surface and groundwater are one interconnected resource that must be managed as such across Canada. Surface water percolates into groundwater and recharges aquifers; groundwater upwellings in turn sustain base flows in rivers and streams, which is especially critical in summer months when there is little precipitation entering surface water sources.

Despite its vital importance, California did not regulate groundwater until 2014, when the state enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The damage to California’s aquifers from this “Wild West” approach to groundwater management is widespread. So much groundwater has been extracted that across the state, land is sinking and aquifers are at serious risk of being depleted.

  1. Normal dry cycles will become much more exacerbated due to climate change – According to the U.S. EPA, some long-term trends in water availability in the western U.S. are now becoming apparent. It has experienced less rain over the past 50 years, as well as increases in the severity and length of droughts.

Future hydrological projections taking into account climate change suggest that the western U.S. will experience less total annual rainfall, less snowpack in the mountains, and earlier snowmelt. These impacts in turn, mean that less water will likely be available during the summer months when demand is highest.

Projections for changing hydrological patterns in western Canada are similar. Data show snowpacks and glaciers vanishing at record speeds and snowmelt occurring earlier in the spring. This again means less water available to sustain flows in the summer.

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  1. Each jurisdiction must develop planning processes suited to its unique legal, social and historical context – and that will take time – Increasingly complex water problems point to a clear need for communities across Canada to develop water planning processes to help keep their ecology and economy functioning in times of shortage. Plans allow for watershed-specific solutions and structures that can liberate water for essential uses.

California’s SGMA includes robust groundwater planning provisions that offer three water planning insights for Canadian communities to take into account.

The Uvas reservoir in Santa Clara, CA. Photo courtesy of Don DeBold.
The Uvas reservoir in Santa Clara, CA. Photo courtesy of Don DeBold.

First, California’s SGMA introduced a requirement for groundwater sustainability agencies to develop groundwater sustainability plans. Beginning in the 1990s, California encouraged planning exercises to protect groundwater, but there was no requirement to actually develop and implement plans. While some successful examples of voluntary plans do exist, this approach is generally ineffective on a wider scale. The most effective plans will be those that are mandatory and enforceable.

Second, the SGMA requires that groundwater sustainability plans meet basic sustainability standards that avoid “undesirable effects,” including aquifer overdraft, land subsidence and saltwater intrusion. Canadian communities must also develop plans that include clear and enforceable targets and achieve some minimum performance standards.

A third point for Canadian jurisdictions to take note of is that California’s groundwater planning process has been extremely protracted. Almost fifty years will have passed between:

  • The creation of the first framework for local planning (1991);
  • When the first groundwater management plans are required to be in place and operating under the SGMA (2020 and 2022); and
  • When groundwater sustainability plans must achieve sustainability criteria (20 years after the plans have been adopted – 2040 and 2042).

With California’s groundwater sustainability planning timeline in mind, Canadian communities must begin water planning processes now, with clear timelines for plan implementation. Critical first steps include: piloting water sustainability plans that include drought management, linkage to environmental flows, and the application of minimum standards and water objectives on a regionally appropriate basis.

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