Ellen Bruno: SGMA as a Case Study

The extension economist is exploring the challenges and opportunities in future groundwater management in California.

June 13, 2022
By Austin Price, BFI communications coordinator

California Aquaduct photo by Dale Kolke/California Department of Water Resources

Before 2014, the state of California did not regulate groundwater use. When the rivers ran low during dry years, landowners turned to the aquifers and pumped as much groundwater as they liked. But as the state’s agricultural sector grew, wells in many basins started to withdraw water more quickly than the aquifers could be replenished, a process known as “overdraft.” And that’s become a big problem for the state’s underground water levels as climate change has intensified droughts and made precipitation more variable.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, groundwater overdraft in some agricultural regions averages about 2 million acre-feet of water each year. During the drought from 2011 to 2016, more than 3,500 domestic wells ran dry, even as farmers and communities continued to drill new ones.

Then, in 2014, at the height of the last drought, state lawmakers passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The law set up local groundwater management agencies across the state and tasked them to develop groundwater management plans to be implemented over the next two decades. SGMA, in theory, regulates groundwater, to prevent overdraft and stabilize aquifer levels for a sustainable water future.

Of course, there are a few steps from theory to practice. That’s where BFI affiliated faculty Ellen Bruno, an assistant professor of Cooperative Extension in UC Berkeley’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, comes in. As an agricultural economist, Bruno works with local agencies and stakeholders to ensure that SGMA’s implementation over the near future can achieve its sustainability goals, while minimizing the regulation costs that will impact the ag sector, particularly small-scale, underrepresented farmers.

And it’s work she’ll continue doing as SGMA is further implemented. In April, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) listed Bruno as one of the recipients of its New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award. The FFAR award will enable Bruno to continue to analyze SGMA as a case study to explore the challenges and barriers to sustainable and equitable groundwater regulation. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Bruno about SGMA, water sustainability, and her role as an extension specialist at the confluence of research and policy.

How does your role as a UC extension specialist influence the how and why of your research?

As an extension specialist, I try to research issues that are relevant and important to California stakeholders, particularly the agricultural and natural resource communities in the state. That can include water managers, policymakers, environmentalists, community groups, and farmers. I share my research with these groups at any opportunity I can, for example, at public meetings and through one-on-one interactions. This serves as a way for me to learn about new issues and find new directions for my work that would make it the most impactful it can be. The goal is to work alongside these communities to make sure the research reflects their concerns.

In terms of issues important to agricultural stakeholders, groundwater must be at the top of the list. Why is groundwater such a concern right now?

Historically, groundwater has served as a buffer to variability in the surface water supplies. When surface water is unavailable, farmers turn to groundwater. And until SGMA was passed, essentially anyone with land could drill a well and pump groundwater. Over time, this has led to drawdown of the storage in the underground aquifers.

This year we’re experiencing another year of extreme drought, which means that the agriculture sector can expect to receive a reduction in surface water deliveries. If groundwater continues to be depleted as quickly as it is, we won’t have it available in the long run to buffer the costs of drought, which we can expect to grow more intense with climate change. Overdraft of groundwater is also causing some shallow domestic water wells to run dry, limiting drinking water access. It’s also causing land subsidence, which can cause costly damage to infrastructure.

So this is where SGMA comes in. What makes this law so significant?

SGMA is a landmark regulation that is fundamentally changing the way we use and manage groundwater in the state. It is far-reaching, affecting over 90 percent of the groundwater pumping in the nation’s largest agricultural state. Given that groundwater makes up anywhere between 30 to 80 percent of the water supply in any given year, this is a big deal. It’s transitioning groundwater from an open-access resource to one that’s locally managed and sustainable in the long run.

What are some of the strengths of SGMA? What is it doing well so far?

As a policy, SGMA has a lot of strengths. It’s a statewide framework for local management. It requires coordination and communication among local agencies. One feature of SGMA that I like a lot is its decentralized nature. Local agencies have the authority and flexibility to reach sustainability mandates however they choose, meaning they can implement management strategies that are best for the local area. As a result of SGMA, we’re seeing a stark deviation from the prior open-access status quo to a collection of diverse supply and demand management strategies being proposed across the state.

You recently submitted a public comment to the groundwater management agency in Fresno on how SGMA implementation could better incorporate small-scale, family farms. Is inequality a concern in how SGMA is implemented?

While the goal of SGMA is groundwater sustainability, which means high groundwater levels and enhanced resiliency to drought, it will impose costs in the short run through groundwater use restrictions in some areas. Large, well-resourced farmers will likely have a greater portfolio of averting actions at their disposal than smaller farms. Not everyone has the same capacity to adapt to shocks. Small farmers are more likely to rent their land and have less access to capital. Through SGMA, groundwater management agencies have an opportunity to influence the distribution of the costs and benefits of groundwater management. In our public comment, we tried to bring attention to this issue and help local managers recognize the distributional effects of proposed taxes and other allocation-based policies.

What other areas of water management research in California do you find particularly important right now?

One of the biggest upcoming water supply challenges for California will be the increasing misalignment in timing between water availability and water demand. California has wet winters and dry summers. Historically, snowpack has served as the state’s largest reservoir of winter precipitation, holding water in the mountains until late spring when the demand for agricultural water increases. Under a warming climate, we expect to see less snowfall in the mountains, so that natural reservoir will effectively shrink. Researchers and practitioners are exploring and implementing managed aquifer recharge, or MAR, as an approach to offsetting storage losses associated with shrinking snowpack. When rivers swell during winter rains, surplus flows can be diverted onto farmland or into infiltration basins where they would then percolate into the underlying aquifers. MAR is cheap and flexible relative to dam storage, and opens the door to different management and policy possibilities, including banking and trading programs.

I also recently published a paper on leak detection and reduction, which broadly focuses on optimal approaches for urban utilities to conserve water. My colleagues and I found that leak management is low-hanging fruit compared to other strategies like recycled water. Before water reaches your faucet, eight percent of it is lost to leaks somewhere in the delivery system. Nationwide, that number is even higher, around 17 percent. California is the first state in the US to require water utilities to regulate their water losses. Given the interconnectedness of California’s water systems, conservation in any sector has the potential to ease the pressure off limited groundwater supplies.

What are some pressing California groundwater questions that warrant further research?

Climate change will influence both water supply and water demand in ways that will continue to stress the current system. There are lots of opportunities to explore questions about the optimal allocations of scarce water resources – both over space and over time – and the policies that could get us closer to that allocation in the face of climate change and uncertainty. More research is needed on how to align incentives of growers and agencies to better utilize groundwater as a natural reservoir.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Further reading on Ellen Bruno’s research and groundwater management in California: