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Abundant 2016-17 season rainfall following punishing years of drought, had Californians yearning for and proposing investments in water storage – savings banks for less rainy days.

Decisions on funding the anticipated typical (if “new and improved”) surface water storage projects lie on the near horizon, but many were recently shocked to learn that several proposed surface water storage projects.failed to meeting the public benefit criteria for funding under Proposition 1 (Rogers 2018 and Mercury News Editorial Board 2018).

Meanwhile, in January 2017, California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR), pursuant to its Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) responsibilities, published its Draft Water Available for Replenishment (DWAFR) report.

In both cases, enormous opportunities have been overlooked by California water cognoscenti – for storage, as well as for recharge.

The opportunities for storage are overlooked because they consist not of top-of-mind retention storage, as by dams, but rather subsurface detention storage.

These opportunities are literally out-of-sight, out-of-mind because they operate below ground, as well as beyond our (compulsive?) inclinations toward retention when simple detention storage may actually serve most of our needs (much) more efficiently.

They are also hidden because we’ve forgotten the history and prehistory of our California watersheds, moreover catchments.

We take for granted, even wax poetic about “the golden rolling hills of California” [Kate Wolf (1977) Pacheco/ The Red-tail Hawk, composed by George Schroder and Robin Williamson].  Yet at least some of us remember these lands are dominated by nonnative annual grasses – the reason they die and turn golden, then brown, each summer/ fall.  The rangelands have been altered from their original, natural conditions.

The anthropogenic forces that engendered the second most expansive land cover type in California, after combined agricultural types, (Davis and colleagues 1998) significantly degraded watershed/ catchment detention functions.  Restoration of detention functions over all or much of these lands offers vast new detention storage opportunities.

Restoration of detention storage means restoring infiltration and percolation functions.  Infiltration and percolation on uplands feeds bedrock aquifers.  Bedrock aquifers generally drain to the alluvial aquifers that currently command all the attention.

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Yet, in its January 2017 draft report, DWR considered only surface waters available for replenishment.  And even there, the report suggests that engineered (typically unvegetated) recharge structures offer superior functioning to natural recharge along natural/-ized, vegetated riparian zones and floodplains, and indicates such engineered structures as the only proposed option.

Furthermore, they concluded that there is actually very little water available for replenishment of most basins.  Much water is not “available” because of existing water rights claims upon it.

Yours truly submitted comments on that draft report, transmitted electronically within a few minutes of the comments deadline – skidding in last minute largely due to technological snafus plaguing me at the time.  Ongoing tech issues helped delay my discovery, until two months later, that my comments had not been included among the public comments DWR posted online.

Given a history of DWR ignoring my past input and comments, I first tried getting their attention via my state senator’s office at the time.  When that effort seemingly dragged I contacted DWR’s representative for the draft report directly, who responded in a refreshingly timely manner.

Turned out that my comment letter had inexplicably been routed to DWR archives – apparently confirming past suspicions that my earnest input was going directly to “circular file”.  😉

This most recent input, March 2017, had been on top of over 100 pages of topical bibliographies (from my doctoral dissertation) and other support material I had submitted to DWR in August 2016 in response to their survey on SGMA Best Management Practices (BMPs).  While DWR’s take on SGMA BMPs differed from my initial understanding, I’d hoped my extensive input would at least be considered in their Draft Water Available for Replenishment report but it clearly was not.

Then there had been my 2009 comments on the California Water Plan then in progress – completely ignored, so why bother, anyway?

I actually had a rather delightful, enlightening chat with the DWR representative, got the impression I’d gotten my points across, though that remains to be seen.  Most enlightening to me was his clarification of the direct connection between water “available” and pertinent water rights.

I didn’t necessarily expect DWR to endorse my proposal of additional water available for replenishment and was not concerned with having my comments posted publicly – two months after the deadline.  My concern was that they not rule out approaches such as mine, as their draft report seems to do.

DWR’s Draft Water Available For Replenishment report graphic depiction of watershed functions is woefully biased by a surface water purview.  Their watershed concept encompasses solely surface water flows, reinforcing that unfortunate notion that watersheds only shed, rather than catch or detain rainfall.

– Among reasons a U.S. semantic shift from “watershed” to “catchment” may be worth pressing – it even misleads the pros.

The Draft Water Available For Replenishment report considers solely the alluvial aquifers that have been subject to overdraft, completely overlooking whole watershed sources, including subsurface inflows to these alluvial basins from bedrock aquifers, fed by infiltration and percolation through uplands vadose zones.

DWR’s DWAFR portrayal suggests rainfall only reaches groundwater basins through surface flows – a literally superficial view.

DWR apparently can’t see the watershed/ catchment for the streams.  This suggests a Figure vs Ground bias.  That the behavior of groundwater contrasts with that of surface water has likely also helped stymie systemic understanding.  See Surface-Groundwater Systems in a Holistic Water Cycle.

Bedrock aquifers have been known to hydrogeologists for a century, yet were completely, reductionistically omitted from DWR’s conceptual consideration of inflows to groundwater basins.

Presumably because of this surface waters bias, doubtless also influenced by historical regulatory perspectives?

Such errors of omission are emblematic of paradigmatic problems that blind practitioners to potential.  A few of the most salient paradigm issues are discussed on this Rainfall to Groundwater site.  Please refer to Alternate Paradigms Figure vs Ground , Reductionism vs Holism, Stream Networks vs Watersheds/ Catchments and Domination vs Collaboration.

Regardless of the outcome of DWR’s final Water Available For Replenishment report, California Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are well advised to look elsewhere for opportunities beyond DWR’s limiting vision.

Existing encumbrances permitted by the State Water Resources Control Board apply to surface waters, along with subterranean streams.  DWR indicates that source is largely spoken for and that there really isn’t all that much surface water “available” for recharge.

However, percolating groundwater not associated with a subterranean stream apparently falls outside this permitting authority  See California Case and Who owns the rainfall?  A legal frontier?

Rainfall to Groundwater proposes restoration of uplands, as well as streambank detention storage functions to exponentially expand groundwater recharge beyond DWR’s proposed point-source, engineered structures.

Distributed recharge

Distributed storage

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Rights to waters stored by natural streambank detention functions may be saddled by legal encumbrances, but some Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and associated water agencies may find that the benefits of streambank detention storage – as bulwark against seawater intrusion, for example – merit stakeholder arrangements that benefit the groundwater basin as a whole.

At the emergence of Rainfall to Groundwater, it appears that restoration of detention, i.e., infiltration and percolation, functions to degraded watershed/ catchment uplands offers opportunities that fall outside existing permit restrictions.

Expanding uplands detention storage represents water truly available for groundwater replenishment/ recharge.  Unencumbered, thus available.

As California Groundwater Sustainability Agencies develop their Groundwater Sustainability Plans, it is imperative that, on behalf of their constituents, they look beyond the limiting 20th Century water engineering paradigm that continues to serve as the prevailing model for California water agencies to date.

Remember, it is this engineering paradigm that has driven the cost of proposed infrastructure beyond the value of water to at least some of its consumers.  Again, just last week, we learned that several proposed surface water storage projects have difficulty meeting the criteria for public benefit established through the Proposition 1 funding mechanism for water storage (Rogers 2018).

While I have reviewed some parts of Prop 1, I’ve assumed (perhaps like the water agencies?) the water storage aspects pertained to the traditional storage projects we are used to, so I comment in ignorance of the criteria the proposed projects failed to meet.

But I can certainly point to an overall framework that just might meet any criteria based on cost/ benefit ratio.

Ecohydrology emerged around the turn of millennium and it clearly surpasses reductionistic 20th Century approaches focused solely on the physical sciences in capturing the true functions of integrated catchment systems.

Ecohydrology offers the most promising, cost-effective framework for resolving our water resource issues as the 21st Century accelerates.  Cost-effective because we collaborate with nature to make it happen.  Over time, nature will absorb most “costs” while we continue to reap the benefits.

California Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are strongly encouraged to explore the Rainfall to Groundwater site to learn more about this proposed ecohydrological approach to increasing water available for replenishment/ recharge / sustainability of groundwater basins.

The intention is to offer online learning, collaboration and more to facilitate application of Rainfall to Groundwater principles to Groundwater Sustainability Plans.  But some early supporters/ participants are needed to help get learning programs and books to you ASAP.

Please check out the Rainfall to Groundwater Course Pre-Enroll & Sponsorship Order page to learn how you can get early adopter discounts on four of the five courses outlined to date under Learn, Apply, along with other crowdfunding incentives.

Verna Jigour, PhD


Davis, F. W., D. M. Stoms, A. D. Hollander, K. A. Thomas, P. A. Stine, D. Odion, M. I.Borchert, J. H. Thorne, M. V. Gray, R. E. Walker, K. Warner, and J. Graae. 1998.  The California Gap Analysis Project–Final Report. University of California, Santa Barbara, California, USA.

Rogers, Paul.  2018.  Prop 1. Problems – Hurdle to water projects arises: State deems nearly a dozen proposed dams, reservoirs don’t provide enough public benefit.  Mercury News.  January 19, 2018

Mercury News Editorial Board.  2018.  Editorial: California must not miss rare chance to gain water storage.  Mercury News.  January 24, 2018