Will Davis Have Well Water if Drought Worsens?

water-rate-iconLast week, attorney, former councilmember and water project opponent Michael Harrington made a comment on the Vanguard: “Give it a few years, and I seriously think that Davis will pull out of the JPA surface water plant as being a worthless dinosaur that is costing ratepayers too much for too little. With climate change accelerating, there will be less and less summer water available from the Sacramento River.”

He continued, “The project was sold to the public as a solution for summer water demand. So give it five years, and maybe someone will run a shutdown initiative, and a one-time charge to ratepayers to buy our way out of the JPA debacle.”

He would later add, “With climate change, and the near certainty that the Sierra snowpack will melt much earlier than the usual mid-summer, and the Sacramento River is going to be low during future summers, and our summer water rights are very junior and pretty much worthless, the surface water plant will probably be viewed in a few years like Rancho Seco was.”

But, while opponents of the surface water project are increasingly arguing that we might not have summer water through the agreement with Conaway Ranch that was enacted in late 2010 and gave Davis and Woodland access to senior summer water rights, the state is looking at ways to limit the pumping of groundwater.

This weekend, Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News reports, “In what would be the most significant water law passed in California in nearly 50 years, lawmakers in Sacramento are working with Gov. Jerry Brown on a landmark measure to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time.”

“Although landowners who want to divert water from reservoirs and rivers have been required to get a permit from the state since 1914, farmers and cities who tap underground aquifers — California’s largest water source — can pump as much as they want, when they want and with almost no oversight or limits,” he continues.

The result of this pumping has been to drop water tables dangerously low in places such as the San Joaquin Valley and Paso Robles.

The Mercury News reports, “Scientific studies show the ground is sinking in many hard-hit areas and that aquifers are at risk of running dry.”

“It’s like a shared bank account. But nobody ever has to balance the checkbook,” Lester Snow, former director of the state Department of Water Resources, told the paper. “We have based a large part of our economy on deficit spending of groundwater. It has to come to an end.”

California uses more groundwater than any other state. In fact, it relies on groundwater 40 percent of the time, but that spikes to 60 percent in dry years and it remains the only state without rules regulating it.

One of the bills is authored by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson and co-authored by Senator Fran Pavley.

Assemblymember Dickinson, back in May, explained that the bill would give local entities about six years in order to develop a sustainable groundwater management plan.

“A critical element of addressing the water challenges facing California involves ensuring a sustainable supply of groundwater,” Assemblymember Dickinson said. ”Over drafting our groundwater leads to subsidence and contamination; consequences we cannot afford.”

The bill addresses critical policy changes in order to achieve sustainable management of the state’s groundwater basins:

  • The bill establishes key definitions that will guide sustainable groundwater management plans and programs, including the definition of sustainable groundwater.
  • A.B. 1739 requires local land-use plans to take into consideration adopted groundwater sustainability plans and to assess the impact of land-use on groundwater resources.
  • The bill focuses sustainable groundwater management on those basins which are at high or medium risk of overdraft
  • The bill defines the components of a groundwater sustainability plan and it authorizes a variety of tools for local groundwater management entities to use in achieving sustainable groundwater levels.
  • The bill sets forth a 50-year planning horizon, a planning period of 20 years, and requires plan updates every 5 years.
  • The bill requires the inclusion of diverse interests in the community when developing and adopting the plan.

When UC Davis came out with the report on the drought, Assemblymember Dickinson issued a statement that their report underscores “the immediate necessity of taking legislative action that will manage groundwater on a sustainable basis.”

The Assemblymember added, “Despite the critical role groundwater plays in water supply for Californians, our state is the only state without comprehensive statewide groundwater management programs. I will continue to work with all stakeholders and my colleagues to achieve legislative solutions regarding our need to ensure the wise use of our groundwater resources in the future.”

What does this mean for Davis? It likely means that the city is not going to be able to count on a groundwater-only system.

Davis has already reported subsidence. According to a report from the California Department of Water Resources, “Other areas of California have experienced subsidence on the order of a total of 2 to 12 feet over the course of several decades. They include Lancaster, the Santa Clara Valley, Ventura, Davis, and more locally near Zamora in the Sacramento Valley. Subsidence typically occurs at slow rates ranging from fractions of an inch to as much as 3 inches per year.”

Under the legislation, “If local governments didn’t set up oversight systems or failed to show progress, state officials could step in and write and enforce the local rules.”

“Groundwater is a critical source of water for families, farms and businesses across the state,” Senator Pavley said. “And if we want it to be available in the future it needs to be managed sustainably.”

The Mercury News reports, “The governor has made Pavley’s legislation a top priority. But her bill, SB1168, is drawing opposition from the state’s main farm organization.”

“At some point in time there has to be some accountability, and we have to get a handle on how much we are pumping,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the paper.

“But this is bad legislation and we oppose it. We’re afraid that if it passes, the unintended consequences are going to be huge. The financial impacts are going to be huge.”

The paper adds, “In dry times like the current three-year drought, when rain and snow aren’t available and reservoir levels are low, groundwater is vital, he said. One well on his farm is keeping his orchards alive during the drought, Wenger said.”

“We’re doing everything we can. We’re stretching out our water — we are just getting by,” he said. “But if we didn’t have access to groundwater, our trees would drop their leaves and slowly die.”

The paper adds, Mr. Wenger says the legislature should delay the law until next year for more study.

“We are talking about one of the most critical bills this Legislature will have seen for many years and we’ve got a month to work through it?” he said. “We feel like we’re getting rolled here.”

How this will end up impacting Davis remains to be seen.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts


  1. Ryan Kelly

    Mike Harrington has never been made to back up his comments with scientific studies and is in no way an expert on water. Mike’s focus is about stopping all growth in the City. To him, access to water equals the potential for explosive growth. I suspect that the regulation and control of ground water will be a welcomed development by Mike as a tool to stop any and all future growth in the City and the region. What he doesn’t understand is the economic impacts, such as the rising cost of food, farm loan defaults, environmental, etc. Again, Mike is no expert on water. He is an lawyer specializing in aviation law with a neurotic political focus on opposing and preventing all growth for the City of Davis. I don’t know why anyone listens to him.

        1. Davis Progressive

          the global temperature “hiatus” is attributed to data errors, lack of surface temperatures in the arctic regions, particularly antarctica.

  2. Michael Harrington

    Ryan, there you go again, attacking the messenger. There are lots of studies about the early snowpack melt.

    Conaway Ranch summer water is too little.

    But our good old deep wells are going to deliver.

    My prediction: give it 5-10 years and there will be serious interest in walking away from the surface plant.

    I am 100% certain in ten years the plant will be viewed as a fiscal disaster for our ratepayers.

    1. Anon

      We should have no problem obtaining Sacramento River water during the winter months if there is no drought, which will help maintain our wells and the deep aquifer. I very much doubt the current drought will last forever.

      1. tribeUSA

        Anon: Exactly, it makes sense to use Sacramento River water during the winter and spring, when river flow is highest and river water quality is best; and to pump from July-October when the converse is true (of course this would necessitate a higher well capacity for these warm yard irrigation months). This would give the groundwater a chance to recover/replenish from November thru June.

        Presumably there is seasonal flexibility built into the plant design and operations agreement?

        1. Don Shor

          Just a note that the wells we are now pumping from don’t, apparently, recharge from the surface here. We’ll be recharging the shallower wells that have been abandoned (but which would still be available in a drought emergency). The recharge of the deeper aquifer is not fully understood. It is not, contrary to what some water project opponents keep saying, unlimited or necessarily even abundant. Having a mix of sources is very prudent.
          We are currently, if I recall, pumping from the deep wells at our maximum capacity allowed under the agreement the city has with UCD about use of the deep aquifer. We can’t pump any more from those wells unless we renegotiate that agreement with UCD, which is very, very unlikely to occur. Because of that, we are running those wells at a rate that guarantees considerable wear and tear on the equipment. The sooner we bring in surface water and reduce that usage, the better.

    1. Davis Progressive

      if he did, he didn’t notice that the article suggested that there will be limitations to ground water in the near future. that seems like a huge oversight.

    2. WesC

      California is the only state without comprehensive statewide groundwater management programs. This is really not surprising considering that water meters will not even be required on all homes and businesses in the state until the year 2025. An artilce in KQED stated: “The city with the most unmetered connections is Sacramento,” Rogers told KQED’s Mina Kim. “Only half of Sacramento’s connections have meters on them.” Bakersfield, Modesto, Lodi and Merced also have a significant number of unmetered connections. The first water meters began going in around World War I, so the communities with fewer meters lag far behind the rest of the state. People without meters are charged a flat monthly rate in those areas for water, usually between $20 and $35 a month. And those communities use 39 percent more water per capita than the state average, according to an analysis of state Department of Water Resources records. Despite living in a hot Mediterranean climate the California standard still seems to be lush green lawns, parks, and greenbelts.

      I think it would be incredibly unwise to assume that we will forever have unrestricted unlimited access to river water as well as groundwater.

  3. Anon

    Both Woodland and Davis will be able to obtain water from the Sacramento River most of the year, except for the months of June, July and August if there is a water shortage. Secondly, Woodland is running an ASR (Aquifer Storage and Recover) pilot program that will store, underground, water gathered in the winter months, so it is available for pumping during the summer. I see no problem with regulating well water to the extent that each city has some sort of integrated well water management plan. The farmers should not be fighting this, else at some point they may find themselves without the water they need.

    1. John

      Anon, the farmers are fighting this because in the current system they have almost complete control of their own fate. If some form of Dickinson/Pavley is passed they will no longer have that level of complete autonomy.

      Is it realistic to believe that they ever will find themselves without the water they need? That is a bold and sweeping statement you have made.

        1. John

          I do not believe that is correct Anon. The whole discussion about groundwater controls is in large part because farmers have unrestricted ability to drill wells into the groundwater aquifer.

    2. tribeUSA

      Anon–great news that the Aquifer Storage & Recovery pilot is going forward. Let’s hope it works out well–store river water underground in the winter/spring, when it is plentiful and of high (chemical) quality, and pump such underground water July-Oct; when river water flows decline as does (chemical) quality.

  4. DavisBurns

    According the the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the most important adaptive stradigies we need to implement is groundwater management. We can expect longer summers, an increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2025, an increase in the sacramento area of the number of days over 105 by fivefold by mid century (up to 20 days) resulting in an increased demand and an decreasing supply of water statewide.

    “One study illustrates problems in California’s water supply allocations (the amount of water that goes to different users each year) if the current allocation criteria and decision- making procedures continue to be used as the climate changes. Many water management decisions in California rely on a classification scheme of the year’s water availability
    The single most important step toward preparing for climate change in the water sector is to implement an accurate monitoring system that records water diversions.
    (distinguishing “wet,” “normal,” “dry,” and “critically dry” years). Depending on what type of year it is, different amounts of water are allocated among the state’s many users. Using the current allocation thresholds, the study projects changes in stream flow for the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, showing that by the latter half of the 21st century critically dry water years could occur substantially more often (8 percent more frequently in the Sacramento Valley and 32
    percent more often in the San Joaquin Valley), compared to the historical period (1951-2000). During such critically dry years it is nearly impossible to satisfy the state’s water needs, including those for agricultural and environmental purposes, which could affect the farm economy and endangered species. Adaptive changes in the water allocation framework could help lessen this problem.”

    The water project makes sense to me because we need an alternate source of water even if the water isn’t available all summer. We need to follow Woodland ‘s example an recharge our wells when river water is available. I think most people fail to appreciate the critical role snowpack plays in providing water storage. Replacing that storage capacity will not be trivial.

    However, given projected water shortages, I question the wisdom of increasing the demand continuing to grow but that is a population subject I find few willing to broach.

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      “We can expect longer summers, an increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2025, an increase in the sacramento area of the number of days over 105 by fivefold by mid century (up to 20 days) resulting in an increased demand and an decreasing supply of water statewide.”

      Can you point to a source (best if it is on the Web) for this claim? Your numbers are not only far worse than what I have read and have been told by experts, but in a fundamental way they contradict something I was told by a UC Davis climatologist (member of the IPCC) who studies our region. He told me that we should not expect much of an increase in our summer heat. Rather, the climatological problem we face in the next 75-100 years is much warmer winters. That is itself a serious problem for the Sierra snowpack, which feeds our creeks and rivers year round, and serves as a large share of the water storage in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley.

      Source: http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.edu/landingpage.cfm?article=ca.v063n02p59&fulltext=yes

      Note: This document is from 2007. If you Google Dr. Weare’s work, you will find comparable conclusions written more recently. I point you to the 2007 piece because it is more comprehensive.

      1. Don Shor

        I agree; most of the models I’ve seen don’t show significant summer temperature increases in the parts of California where temperatures are moderated by the coast, which includes us. Redding, on the other hand….

        Winter warming is expected, with loss of chilling hours by 2100 locally down to about 600. There may be more instances of winter loss of chilling units (vs. chilling hours) such as what happened this year that wiped out the cherry crop. That will be erratic.
        And it would be expected that more of our water would fall as rain than as snow, compared to what we get now. So it would be important to capture and store more of it, via reservoirs and underground storage.

        1. DavisBurns

          This report agrees with you, Don, except for the increase in summer temperatures. They also predict more drought and wild fires.

          It seems to me we have had milder summers the past several years–it has been downright pleasant. We have speculated that as the interior heats up, the cool coastal air is being sucked further inland but that is speculation. We also notice an absence of tule fog in the winter.

        1. Don Shor

          We can expect longer summers, an increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2025,

          Actually, I don’t find that anywhere in the study, and given that 2025 is only 8 1/2 years away I consider it quite unlikely.

        2. Rich RifkinWDE 73

          Davis Burns: “We can expect longer summers, an increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2025, an increase in the sacramento area of the number of days over 105 by fivefold by mid century (up to 20 days) resulting in an increased demand and an decreasing supply of water statewide.”

          First, DB, thanks for providing the link. However, you made a mistake here, probably going off your memory of the report. This is the language you were likely thinking of (from page 2 of OUR CHANGING CLIMATE 2012):

          “By 2050, California is projected to warm by approximately 2.7°F above 2000 averages, a threefold increase in the rate of warming over the last century.”

          So it says 2050, not 2025. Further, I don’t think any climate scientists now expect that much warming by 2050. The models have been revised as new data has come in.

          Second, while you implied this was for the Sacramento region, or at least that is what I inferred from what you wrote, the report is for all of California, not just our area. Given the size and diversity of our state, you cannot assume our region will be affected the same as areas as different as Barstow and Pelican Bay.

          On the other hand, your language on 105 degree days is confirmed by this report:

          “Extremely hot” days in Sacramento (at least 105°F) will become more common with climate change. By the middle of this century, the number of extremely hot days could increase fivefold (up to 20 days) compared to the historical period (black curve).

          The problem is that empirical data on temperature increases has been lower than the models in this report indicate. (That is why global models used by NOAA have been modified.) It’s not to say that global temperatures or California temperatures are not going up. They are. California is having its hottest year ever this year. It’s that they have not been going up as fast as the models suggested they would a decade ago.

          One theory as to why the increases have been less drastic is that a lot more atmospheric carbon is being absorbed by our oceans than the older models expected. That is acidifying the oceans, but reducing the growth in atmospheric carbon.

          Another factor is that water vapor levels in the atmosphere are now much higher (as was predicted by the older models). It may be the case that the older models underestimated the impact greater water vapor in the atmosphere would have on modifying temperature increases.

          I certainly cannot explain the climatological science. However, I know enough to know that, while temperatures keep going up, they have not been going up at the rates predicted in the 2012 report you reference.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      Are he, and Rich Rifkin, aware that we are in year 17 of a the Global Warming “hiatus”?

      Global Temperature Update: No global warming at all for 17 years 9 months


      Climate change: The case of the missing heat


      We also are having one of the colder summers on record.


      NASA Announces New Record Growth Of Antarctic Sea Ice Extent


      1. Davis Progressive

        you’re mainly posting from right wing sources. the new growth of the sea ice for example misses the point that while the length is there, the depth and thickness isn’t. so it’s longer but the volume of water is far less.

    1. Anon

      Amen Frankly! The problem is the state of CA does not have seniority on the Appropriations Committee at the national level to get dams built. Vic Fazio kept trying, but got nowhere.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      We could expand existing dams, and build a new one in the Central Valley. This would help humans, fish, and fowl. The Sacramento River is larger than the Colorado River. There is plenty of water.

      “Bills proposed in Congress would authorize a number of projects to expand or create reservoirs. Among the projects are raising the dam at Shasta Lake to store more water in California’s largest reservoir, creating a new reservoir in the Sierra Nevada along the upper San Joaquin River east of Fresno and damming a valley north of Sacramento.

      “Other storage options include expanding the dams at the San Luis Reservoir in the central part of the state and at Los Vaqueros Reservoir in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area.”


  5. Frankly


    The observed rate of warming simulated by the climate models participating in Phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) is less than half of this simulated rate, and only a few simulations provide warming trends within the range of observational uncertainty.

    The inconsistency between observed and simulated global warming is even more striking for temperature trends computed over the past fifteen years (1998–2012).

    For this period, the observed trend of 0.05 ± 0.08 °C per decade is more than four times smaller than the average simulated trend of 0.21 ± 0.03 °C per decade.

    It is worth noting that the observed trend over this period — not significantly different from zero — suggests a temporary ‘hiatus’ in global warming.

    This is the bottom line… The climate models have been tweaked and tweaked and tweaked to match the historical climate record. In other words, none of the previous climate models accurately predicting the future climate.

    So, instead of looking at the tweaked models to make the case that they are now accurate predictive models, the real factual point is simply that the climate models consistently fail to accurately predict the future climate.

    Ask a skilled computer scientist if the new object-oriented enterprise system he just developed will function as designed, and he will generally always say yes. Then the users take over and the system crashes and is full of bugs. The problem is the matrix of cause and effect criteria. There are millions of criteria that exist and billions of combinations that can cause different results. It is humanly impossible to test all those combination in advance, but the skilled computer scientist has so much invested in his system design, his ego would never allow him to admit so many defects.

    Now, with climate models there are billions of criteria… including astrophysics… things like the seasons of our Sun, etc. The probability of defects in the models is exponential. And because of this, we should never, ever set any government policy based on the results of the models. That would be stupid and hazardous.

    1. tribeUSA

      Frankly–yes, you state some valid points here. I’m a hydrologist, not a climate scientist, but it seems to me that the Climate Change Community (of scientists) has failed to adequately communicate to the general public the potential role of metastable states in the climate system. There are many scientists who are acutely aware of the likely existence of such metastable states; but the feed-forwards and feedbacks in the global climate system have not been adequately characterized in order to be able to reliably include terms that lead to metastable states in the climate models. Currently intensively active areas of research are the dynamics/roles of atmospheric aerosols (including clouds), heat exchange between the oceans and atmosphere, and interactions between the troposphere and stratosphere; the dynamics and roles of these in the global climate system are not clearly understood. This observed 17-year hiatus (how much longer will it last?) might (not confirmed yet) be a reflection of an existing metastable state–as CO2, methane, and other atmospheric constituents continue their steady rise, it is likely that a threshold will be crossed that will break us out of the current (hypothesized) metastable state. Also, apparent metastable states may manifest as a consequence of decadal and longer time scales for processes related to global warming (for example, achievement of thermal equilibrium between the oceans and atmosphere has a time scale of centuries due to slow transport of heat energy to depth in the oceans).

  6. Clem Kadiddlehopper

    Now, is there REALLY this remarkable drought, or have we simply been over using the available water for several decades already? There are a number of places where we have millions of people, but the land historically only supported hundreds or thousands. Even with tens of thousands, the weather and the land supplied plenty of water for survival, and some thrown in for waste and recreation. But, MILLIONS? Oh-oh – not enough water to go around.

    We have been pumping lakes, rivers, and aquifers dry for decades now. We pump water from wherever we can find it, not caring about where it came from, or whether it will ever be replaced, or how it might be replaced.

    Do we really have exceptional droughts today, or are we simply running out of water to waste?

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      That is what Santa Barbara did for many years. It caused a number of problems, not the least of which was a massive deterioration of housing quality at the lower end. Landlords had no incentive to keep up their properties, because they could charge a high rent for a bad place and no one could build a nicer building to take away their tenants. But a larger problem, as Santa Barbara’s lack of water went on for decades is that they eventually had a massive fire, which was a consequence of the failure to secure new sources of water. It was only after hundreds of homes burned to the ground that they decided a better strategy was to add fresh water capacity. They started with a huge desalinization plant.

      1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

        FWIW, you can learn more about the 2008 Tea Fire in Santa Barbara by Googling it. As I recall, it was started by UCSB students. But it burned down over 200 homes due to the drought and lack of water resources in that region.

  7. Clem Kadiddlehopper

    The problem is, we’ve been using water faster than water can evaporate and fall as rainfall. We’ve been drying out the land for decades. Give us time, and we’ll figure out how to dry the ocean as well.

    1. DavisBurns

      We won’t dry out the ocean, we use it as a giant dumping ground. When we talk about climates change and rising temperatures, we need to include the rising temperature of the oceans. From the EPA

      “Sea surface temperatures have been higher during the past three decades than at any other time since reliable observations began in 1880.”

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for