How Is The Issue Of Water Resources For The North State Being Addressed?

Apr 26, 2018

Valley well owners can gauge their groundwater levels by comparing their well completion report to groundwater levels of monitoring wells around them, which is found at the state’s Water Data Library.
Credit PETER SIMS / Flickr, Creative Commons

“Hello, this is Lupe Green. I’m calling from Tehama County, California and my question is how is the issue of water resources for the North State being addressed? I am concerned about the availability of water in the North State over time, given climate change, droughts, increased acres of orchards, and water demands from the southern part of the state. Will the many individual water wells run dry?”

The northern Sacramento Valley is lined with walnut orchards, almond orchards and the communities we call home. All of this takes water, and a lot of it. If you rely on a well, then Lupe is right, there are a number of things that you should be concerned about; especially in an ever changing political and environmental climate. 

Since You Asked is a series that answers your questions about the North State. Submit your question by calling 530-433-4887 or emailing nsprsinceyouasked@gmail.com.

California is one of the last U.S. states to impose regulations on groundwater. In 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires that groundwater for most of the state be managed sustainably by 2042.

In critical regions, like the San Joaquin Valley, that 24 year away deadline is sooner. There, parts of the land are experiencing something called subsidence - where the ground has sunk due to overpumping of the aquifers. Thankfully, we haven’t seen groundwater issues of that scale in the North State, but there are still concerns. Under SGMA, our local water agencies have to submit plans to protect our groundwater in the next four years. The Department of Water Resources (DWR), will review those plans to ensure that they will help protect resources.

Tehama County groundwater changes.
Credit Image courtesy of DWR

Bill Ehorn is an engineering geologist at DWR’s Northern Region Office in Red Bluff. He has worked in the department for 22 years. He said that ideally these plans will take climate change, drought, and increasing demand for water all into consideration.

Groundwater changes legend
Credit Image courtesy of DWR

“If groundwater is being used then that groundwater sustainability agency is going to have to determine or decide, you know, if they can afford to give up that groundwater,” he said.

Ehorn’s department measures the water levels in hundreds of wells across the North State. Ehorn can compare this data with previous years to see if those levels are rising or declining over time.

“For north Sacramento Valley as a whole, we’re still seven or so feet down on average than we were in Fall 2011 before the drought,” he said.

That means California hasn’t really recovered from the drought, he said.

“You can’t really say that, we’re still down after the wettest winter on record, but it’s going to take more than one wet year to get our groundwater up, we need a series of them,” he said.

Since 2014, 46 households in Tehama County reported to the state that they ran out of water due to a dry well or stream. It’s unclear from the state’s data how many of those shortages have been resolved. Mark Stemen is a professor in the Geography and Planning Department at Chico State. He said due to our changing climate we’re going to see more wells run dry in the future.

“Because of the extreme heat that’s going to be coming, it’s going cause even more evaporation and literally start drying out the ground,” he said. “So you are going to see more pumping to try to keep the water levels going for agriculture, so you're going to see a good drop in the groundwater anticipated all throughout the north of the state.”

Glenn County groundwater changes.
Credit Image courtesy of DWR
Colusa County groundwater changes.
Credit Image courtesy of DWR

The State of California’s climate software, called Cal-Adapt, predicts that temperatures in Tehama County will rise an average of 5 degrees by 2050, which means less snowpack and less groundwater in the region. When I asked Ehorn whether or not more household wells were likely to run dry due to climate change, increased demand for water in the south, and other factors mentioned by Lupe, he was more optimistic.

“The best answer I could give to that, is, you know, you’ve got to have faith in SGMA, that they’re going to, that sustainable groundwater management is actually going to result in sustainable groundwater management,” he said.

There are many factors that go into predicting what's going to happen with groundwater in the North State, and those factors can change at any moment. If you’re worried about your personal well, there are ways to tell whether or not it’s at risk of going dry. You can monitor groundwater levels yourself and see how they've changed over time on DWR's groundwater information center website. (*Once you click on the link, we recommend selecting change for your data type, S2017-S2012 for your layer group, contours and color ramp for your layers. Also slide the bar all the way to the right. If you select these options, the map will display the change in groundwater levels from the spring of 2012 to the spring of 2017.)

If you own a well it’s important to continually monitor its water levels and track any significant changes. For a more complete guide on how to care for your well, listen to one of our previous reports here.

This episode featured original music by Michael Lee.

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Since You Asked is a series on NSPR where you ask the questions and we find the answers. Whether your question is lighthearted or hard-hitting, we want to get to the bottom of it. Submit your question using the form below or email us at nsprsinceyouasked@gmail.com.