Stanford’s Water in the West Program Offers New Way to View Groundwater Resources

Aug. 1, 2014

By Terry Nagel

Because groundwater is hidden beneath the earth’s surface, for many Californians it’s a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Residents often take it for granted and do not realize that it is a critical resource, providing 40 percent of the state’s water supply during normal years and as much as 60 percent during dry times—like now.

Today, Stanford researchers with Water in the West announced a new project to help Californians understand the importance of groundwater in the state, the problems caused by groundwater overdraft and potential solutions. Their website,“Understanding California’s Groundwater,” offers new research findings, interactive graphics and a synthesis of existing knowledge on groundwater in California, all designed to advance public understanding of this critical issue.

The researchers point out that current groundwater usage in the state is jeopardizing this resource for future generations. Using groundwater to supplement California’s water supply has allowed farmers and communities in California to limp through the current drought, but at the cost of dramatically drawing down the aquifers. That’s one of the reasons California legislators are currently considering bills that would overhaul groundwater management.

Groundwater depletion is occurring in many of California’s important aquifers, causing land subsidence and infrastructure damage, poorer water quality, higher energy use from pumping, and harm to wildlife and plant communities that depend on groundwater.  Groundwater pumping also can diminish river flows, affecting surface-water rights holders and aquatic life, including fish.

“The current trajectory of our groundwater use is not sustainable for the long term. We need to find better tools for managing this water so it is there for us in times of drought and in the future,” said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West, a joint program of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environmentand The Bill Lane Center for the American West, also at Stanford.

Water in the West’s groundwater visualization series includes:

  • An overview of problems surrounding groundwater use in California and ways to address them. Groundwater is used by 85 percent of California’s population and is the sole or primary water source for 6 million residents. The current drought has prompted water users to tap aquifers to replace diminished surface water supplies, exacerbating chronic declines in aquifer levels. Due to a lack of statewide regulation, there are few incentives to prevent overdraft or to live within a “budget” that balances groundwater demand and supply in each basin to sustain groundwater use and aquifer health over time.  One graphic, called “Precipitation Was Sparse in 2013-14,” shows that California was on its way to being the driest year on record until rain came in February 2014, which brought the state back to about the level of the 1976-77 drought and the 1923-24 “Dustbowl.”
  • An interactive map showing and analyzing, for the first time, 55 conflicts between groundwater use and surface water needs in California. Examples of these conflicts include a state-run fish hatchery in the Owens Valley that uses about half of the area’s groundwater and a solar project in the Mojave Desert that would drill new wells to extract groundwater, potentially drying up springs and seeps that support sensitive species. Many people think that groundwater pumping only affects groundwater users. But these conflicts bring to light the groundwater-dependent ecosystems and surface water users affected when groundwater levels drop, and the gaps in current laws for dealing with those conflicts. On the interactive map, site visitors can explore groundwater/surface water battles around the state and filter them by location, type of environmental concern or legal remedy. Visitors can also submit information on new conflicts or add to existing cases.
  • Brand new research on groundwater recharge in California, which is a method of replenishing aquifers, storing water for times of need. The researchers analyzed the cost of groundwater recharge and found that it is far less expensive than desalination or new reservoirs — two options currently being hotly debated to increase the water supply. They also document substantial interest and potential for additional new recharge projects in the state. Animations show how California’s potential underground storage capacity dwarfs the total capacity of major surface reservoirs in the state.
  • An assessment of publicly available groundwater data that shows an alarming lack of information about aquifers in California, which hampers the ability of water managers to make good decisions regarding the use of this precious resource over time. For example, of the 18 Western states, California is the only state that prohibits the sharing of well log data from drillers. Interactive graphics illustrate how decisions by well owners, water managers and the public are affected by the amount of information available. Water in the West researchers also identified five key metrics that are essential to effective groundwater management, then scored the 10 hydrologic regions in California on how well they collected and shared these key pieces of information. Of the 10 hydrologic regions across the state, the highest score was 6 points of a possible 10.

James Caruso, a senior planner with San Luis Obispo County, said the need for groundwater information is essential to those seeking to solve the state’s water crisis. “The lack of data about groundwater in California is appalling,” Caruso noted. “Without information, we are working through solutions in mud.”

Research used to create the visualization was carried out by Stanford graduate students Rebecca Nelson, Justin Maynard, Melissa Rohde and Carolina Sanchez, with assistance from Water in the West-affiliated faculty and staff members Leon Szeptycki, David Freyberg, Janny Choy and Tara Moran.  Visualizations were created in collaboration with the interactive design firm Halftone, under the direction of Geoff McGhee of The Bill Lane Center for the American West.  The Groundwater Visualization project was funded by the California Water Foundation.

About Water in the West

Water in the West is a partnership of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and The Bill Lane Center for the American West. Its mission is to design, articulate and advance sustainable water management for the people and environment of the American West. To learn more, visit

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