water on land
Potential solutions, identified by CAP, to the water shortages in the San Joaquin Valley include expanded groundwater recharge and new infrastructure (Photo: Water Blueprint CA)

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics

Photo: Water Blueprint CA

SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, has lots of folks worried, and for good reason. The Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley estimates the gap between sustainable supplies and sustainable demands to be approximately 3-million-acre feet per year in the San Joaquin Valley. The Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley was formed to find collaborative solutions to this problem while minimizing adverse employment and income impacts in Valley communities and minimizing the loss of arguably some of the best agricultural land in the world. If nothing is done, the economic impact, as estimated by Dr. David Sunding, an economics professor at U.C. Berkeley, is a loss in revenue of around $7 billion per year and 65,000 jobs in the Valley alone. The Blueprint’s work continues but the challenges are great. One of the greatest challenges is mustering political support for the endeavor. In August of this year, The Valley Ag Voice reported on the collaborative efforts of a group of more than 60 organizations. That effort started with a Stanford University “uncommon dialogue” on September 21, 2020 and has evolved into the San Joaquin Valley Water Collaborative Action Program or “CAP” for short. A draft CAP report highlighted the approach: “leaders from many interest groups have begun to come together to engage in water management issues in the Valley – leaders who are more interested in working with each other than in fighting each other, and developing durable solutions as opposed to ones that are short-term and unsustainable.” With the passing of its first birthday, it is appropriate to ask what has CAP achieved?

CAP’s first major undertaking was to define the problem. CAP is comprised of five caucuses: farmers, water districts, environmentalists, local government and disadvantaged communities. Each described the problems and challenges as they saw them, and these were combined into a single document. While a set of diverse issues were raised there was, not surprisingly, a common theme – everyone needed a more reliable supply of water. Under that umbrella, the problems varied between caucuses:

  • the magnitude of the gap between supply and demand is daunting
  • many residents don’t have access to safe, reliable, and affordable drinking water
  • a substantial loss of functional habitat
  • and existing infrastructure is inadequate to solve the problem.

The recognition of those problems led to a set of desired outcomes for the CAP:

  • sustainable water supplies for farms, communities, and ecosystems
  • safe, reliable, affordable drinking water for all Valley residents
  • implementation of an environmental vision with strategic restoration of floodplains and ecosystems
  • logical transition of land use to achieve groundwater sustainability and consistent local, state, and federal policies to achieve these outcomes.

These same outcomes are desired by the Water Blueprint.

More than 70 entities now participate in the CAP. Most of the work is done by a planning committee of 20 members. Not all had the same understanding of water issues or of the objectives of the other participants. An important part of the early CAP work was to build trust between participants and to develop a common understanding of the problem. A few important realizations emerged. First, as noted earlier, the daunting demand-supply gap is in the order of 3-million-acre feet. That is a staggering number. To put it in perspective, the State Water Project, which serves customers from the Feather River to San Diego, has contracts for 4-million-acre feet, but on average delivers only around 2.25-million-acre feet. Second, the gap is not derived only from the needs of agriculture. New environmental demands comprise about 1-million-acre feet of the gap. Third, maximizing use of local supplies, including local flood water, reclamation, and recycling, won’t come close to closing the gap. The most optimistic estimates have those sources providing no more than 600,000-acre feet.

To begin to identify solutions, the CAP planning group was organized into five work groups to develop a plan to accomplish each of the desired outcomes. The solutions identified to date are at a high level. That is, they identify an approach or a direction without providing specifics. Development of those specifics is planned for the second phase of CAP, scheduled to begin in March of 2022. By way of example, the solution set for eliminating the demand-supply gap include increased on-farm recharge, increased multi-benefit recharge projects, exploring water trading and exchange opportunities, phased reduction in agricultural demand through voluntary sales of land from willing sellers at agreeable prices, coordinated management of surface and groundwater resources, repair of existing infrastructure and construction of new infrastructure, and increased recharge of flood water, including potentially floodwater from the Delta if the water can be diverted without harming the Delta ecosystem. Solution sets were also developed for water supplies for disadvantaged communities and the environment.

The CAP has come a long way in its first year. It has engaged a diverse group of stakeholders to solve a common problem. It has brought understanding to difficult issues and increased trust between strangers. It has identified problems and approaches to solutions that people can agree on. It is managed by seasoned professionals who know what they are doing, the difficulty of the challenge, and the consequences of failure. The chance of ultimate success is still anyone’s guess. But, as Steve Jobs once said, the world is changed by people crazy enough to think they can.