For water users in California, nature could be key to battling drought

by Abigail Hart

It’s now clear that we’re heading into another year of drought, though we’ve barely recovered from the last one. But we don’t need to repeat the water management mistakes of the past. Today, we can implement a new set of solutions that can help us manage our land and water sustainably into the future.

It’s clear that drought will be a recurring theme in that future. And each time a drought arrives, our water system is stretched to the breaking point. Historically, we’ve relied on aquifers to provide up to 60% of our water during drought years. But now even our aquifers have been overused to the point of collapse, literally: we’ve pumped so much groundwater that the land has sunk by more than 20 feet in some areas. And, as groundwater stores have declined, we’ve also lost 92 percent of the animal and plant communities that relied on the aquifer for survival.

Now, we have an opportunity to do things differently. We are in the second year of implementing the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will set a trajectory to achieve sustainable groundwater management by 2042. The goal: a future in which we can reliably meet the water needs of people and nature, even during droughts.

The key to that future is what we call “nature-based solutions” — measures that restore our aquifers and natural ecosystems. You can catch a glimpse of that future in the Tule subbasin. where farmers have seen their wells go dry in previous droughts, forcing them to idle farmland. In response, a group of landowners, and water managers are tackling groundwater overdraft head on. With support from Pixley Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon California, local stakeholders formed the Tule Basin Land & Water Conservation Trust. The Trust is focused on replenishing groundwater in basins designed to create habitat for migratory water birds and restoring habitat for imperiled upland species on formerly irrigated lands. These projects will increase local water supplies, while managing formerly irrigated lands in ways that improve air and water quality.

We can think of these practices as “rewilding” our agricultural landscapes by restoring habitat and ecosystem function where it’s been lost. The latest science suggests that rewilding can reduce the economic impacts of idled farmland by bringing financial resources for projects that benefit water supplies. Importantly, these efforts help guarantee the long-term sustainability of remaining farms and the communities they support.

Some water users may say that we should delay implementing groundwater sustainability plans until after drought has passed, arguing that those hit hardest by water shortages can’t afford to reduce water use any further during drought years. In fact, we can’t afford to act now. During our last drought, the Public Policy Institute of California estimated that 2,300 groundwater wells in the San Joaquin Valley went dry, leaving many homes without drinking water. Without a new plan, our people, farms and wildlife will continue to suffer.

A key component of implementing nature-based solutions is planning and coordination, and we can’t start soon enough. We need to be proactive in developing solutions that work in drought years like this one, as well as in a hotter, drier future. And we need public agencies to support planning and implementation when and where stakeholders are ready to take action. Nature-based solutions like wildlife-friendly recharge and restored habitat on retired farmlands are options that offer hope right now.

They also lead us to a future in which the Central Valley not only produces the food we eat, but an abundance of other values as well — improved public health, recreational space, habitat for wildlife, and creating nature-based solutions now will put us on a path to achieve these benefits and strike a new balance for both people and nature.

Abigail Hart is a project director in The Nature Conservancy’s California Water Program. Her work and research focus on stakeholder engagement and collaborative management of working landscapes. She is editor of .

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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