02/13/2014 11:05 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

California Must Look Beneath the Surface to Solve Water Woes


Author: Brian Stranko, Water Program Director for The Nature Conservancy's California chapter. Follow me on twitter to get my perspective on California water solutions.

While Californians rejoiced to the sound of rain this weekend, the recent wet weather is not going to solve our drought, and we shouldn't lose this opportunity to fix long-term issues with water in our state. If we want to improve our water woes we should stop looking at the sky and start looking underground.

We have had droughts before, and, while we've made some incremental fixes to improve efficiency and marginally manage our water better, we have not tackled the critical challenge that is necessary to meet the ongoing water needs of our farms, our cities and our unique natural environment.

Even as we scramble with emergency measures, the real question we should be asking is: How do we prepare for the next drought...and the one after that?

There are many improvements we could make. But, first and foremost, we need to change how we use water we pump from the ground. Under the surface of our lands and rivers is a vast network of groundwater basins -- like giant reservoirs underground -- that sustain our rivers and streams. And in California, where it seems every drop of our rivers is allocated, we don't have rules about groundwater usage in much of the state. We need to change that.

In some parts of the state, groundwater is closely monitored, but in many parts of the state we have slowly added well after well to pump groundwater without assessing the impact that this pumping has had on our already stretched water supply. When we over-pump water, it may help in the short term, but it means we have less and less water in our rivers and streams. That's less water for everyone's use -- cities, farms and wildlife.

The good news is that we can, in many places, turn this around. Learning from the areas where it's already being done right, we can start measuring groundwater use and monitor how it decreases water in our rivers. Collectively as a state, we can start setting appropriate limits on groundwater pumping so that the reservoirs have a chance to replenish in the dry times.

This will not be easy, politically or operationally. But it's necessary. We need the state to provide incentives and tools for local authorities to manage water both underground and in our rivers. The governor's recently released California Water Action Plan is a good beginning. We also need to move forward with a water bond that provides funding for infrastructure to better manage our water and clean up our polluted groundwater basins.

If we don't start managing our groundwater, we will be trying to fill a tub with a hole in it. All of our other actions and investments won't fix the problem. We need to do more than hope for more rain. We need to get serious about managing the water under our feet. If we don't, California will be in worse shape for the next drought than we are today.

Brian Stranko is the Water Program Director for The Nature Conservancy's California chapter. Mr. Stranko has spent more than two decades working on complex issues at well-respected environmental organizations. Prior to joining The Nature Conservancy in 2009, he served as CEO and executive director of California Trout (CalTrout) and worked at National Geographic Society, Trout Unlimited and the Millennium Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Mr. Stranko has an MBA from Georgetown University, a BA from Syracuse University and environmental policy education from the University of Maryland. Maurice Hall, Water Program Science and Engineering lead for the Conservancy, also contributed.