Farm Progress is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Serving: West

California groundwater being used at unsustainable rate

Irrigating potatoes in Kern County Calif
<p>Potatoes being irrigated in Kern County, Calif.</p>
Groundwater pumping has increased as surface water allocations decreased Water banking could help replenish aquifers Local control of groundwater recommended over state control &nbsp; &nbsp;

Two University of California scientists predict groundwater will be unavailable for much of the Golden State within a few decades if current practices aren’t changed.

UC Davis professors Thomas Harter and Helen Dahlke say a significant amount of California’s available water is being tapped from aquifers at unsustainable rates. In other words, it’s being taken out faster than it can be replaced.

In the special edition of California Agriculture released July 16, Harter, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist and UC Davis professor , and Dahlke call attention to the stress being placed on California's aquifers and the catastrophic consequences of not having this hidden resource available in future droughts.

In the University of California's premiere journal for agricultural research, the groundwater experts make the following key recommendations:

  • Groundwater is most effectively managed at the local or regional basin level, with support from the state;
  • Local groundwater management entities must be given better tools, such as clear mandates to assess, measure, monitor and allocate their groundwater and control its extraction;
  • The definition of groundwater sustainability can be set at the state level and translated into specific actionable thresholds that must be enforced locally; with a credible threat of state enforcement should the local efforts be unsuccessful; and,
  • Much better data collection, analysis, reporting and data integration are needed to provide transparency, to support local management efforts and to properly inform the public. This requires much stronger planning and support within the California Department of Water Resources and State Water Board.

The latest agricultural news each day to your Inbox. Click here for the free Western Farm Press Daily e-mail newsletter.

“Local land-use decisions on urban and agricultural development, which have critical impacts on groundwater resources, must be consistent with groundwater management objectives,” Harter and Dahlke write. “This will require significant communication between land-use and groundwater managers. Effective integration with water quality management and surface water management efforts, which are governed separately, is also required. And none of these efforts can occur without sustained funding through a mix of local and state sources.”

Groundwater banking explored

In their outlook article, Harter and Dahlke also explore one of the most promising ideas to protect our aquifers: groundwater banking.

The idea is that during storms or flood control releases, excess surface water could be directed from streams via existing water conveyance systems onto dormant or fallow agricultural fields, which would then serve as infiltration basins. Solutions need to be developed to add significant recharge to California's aquifers, often during relatively short periods when excess surface water is available. 

A three-year project, funded by UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, aims to look at the feasibility of such groundwater recharge activities by setting up pilot groundwater recharge field experiments, which would provide valuable data to address concerns about the costs and risks to crops, the influence these projects may have on groundwater levels and flows, and the possibility of recharging contaminated water or degrading groundwater quality by leaching contaminants such as nitrate from the vadose zone.

Data collected could serve as a foundation for developing economic incentives at the local, state or federal level to acknowledge the landowner's service to the local community and California's water supply reliability.

To read their entire article, “Out of sight but not out of mind: California refocuses on groundwater,” and the special “Water efficiency” edition of California Agriculture, visit and


Further reading:

UC Cooperative Extension Groundwater Program

Helen Dahlke's groundwater banking project

California Water Action Plan: Improving Groundwater Management (links to state policy and emerging legislation)

California Department of Water Resources report to the Governor's Drought Task Force

California Water Plan Update 2013

Association of California Water Agencies Recommendations for Achieving Groundwater Sustainability


Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.