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Walking the Tightrope of Groundwater Management

USGS image, 2005.

Mark Kram is a surfer, which is why he became a scientist. Since junior high school, he’s been exploring California’s Coast in search of waves. His love for being in the water eventually led him on a lifelong scientific quest to keep water clean. One day when we were surfing together near Faria Beach Park in Ventura, California, a solemn look crossed his face. “Ben, man. I’m gonna be real busy pretty soon, and probably won’t be able to surf much anymore,” he said in his laid back SoCal surfer drawl as we bobbed atop our surfboards, waiting for the next set of small, crumbly waves to arrive. “I’m working on something that’s gonna change the way people look at water.”

He wasn’t talking about the ocean, specifically, but the type of water he had honed in on–groundwater–is definitely linked to the sea. Coastal water districts all over the state have to be careful how much water they extract from groundwater aquifers. A full aquifer keeps seawater from leaching in through the soil. If enough sea water enters a depleted aquifer, it can spell the end of a community’s local underground storage capacity, putting them at the mercy of state and federal suppliers that aren’t always able to supply enough water. The Goleta Water District, an agricultural and suburban area located just outside Santa Barbara, California, narrowly avoided seawater contamination a few decades ago. Luckily, a thin layer of clay kept salty water from ruining the aquifer. A bit further north, in Los Osos, seawater has already begun to seep into the groundwater basin there, exciting a number of different judicial, executive, and legislative agencies into a flurry of self-preservatory action.

Dr. Mark Kram. 2008. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Three decades after his first surf session, Kram had two patents under his belt and was ready to change groundwater monitoring with new technology. He quit his job as a government hydrologist and poured himself into his company, Groundswell Technologies. What began as a way to track groundwater contaminant migration turned into a platform Kram says can help policymakers manage groundwater levels by providing constant, automated monitoring and modeling of available water supply.

In California–where water is a finite resource supplying vast agricultural operations, as well as the drinking and washing water needs of the state’s nearly 37 million inhabitants, the state Department of Water Resources does not regulate groundwater use. Time and again, the California legislature has maintained that local entities should manage their own groundwater. But almost all of California’s local water agencies are connected to one another by state and federal water projects, and sometimes even by common aquifers. Aquifers are often shared by adjacent communities, which amounts to “drinking from the same straw,” so to speak. While agreements can be made between agencies regarding groundwater use across a single groundwater basin, differences in data collection techniques and procedural protocols can cause foulups in resource administration.

Currently, most groundwater monitoring setups involve a series of sensor-equipped wells, or in smaller districts with limited funding, wells measured manually with a tape measure. Groundwater wells are typically monitored by a field technician, who collects data at each well at set intervals. Sometimes wells have transmitters that send the data to an offsite technician. Regardless of how it’s collected, data must then be processed and compiled into reports that water managers can use to determine water use policy. In California, this method of water management has worked for more than a century. But as water supplies become more unstable due to high demand and climate change, a more dynamic, accurate method of groundwater basin monitoring will be an important part of maintaining reliability.

Budgetary and political considerations can hold water managers back from newer, better technology, but they are increasingly turning to live update data collection to keep on top of groundwater levels. Instead of having somone check well sensor readings manually, transmitters continuously send sensor data to a database. Groundswell’s process differs from others in that raw sensor data is fed into online modeling software that compiles over time, creating a use history that shows flow patterns, historic levels, and changes in different parts of the aquifer over time. The software also includes live 2-D and 3-D imaging. All of the information is stored on the cloud and can be accessed from a web browser.

A bank of computer-controlled pumps at the La Cumbre Mutual Water Company's Santa Barbara County headquarters. 2010. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Kram said he would like to see complete pump system automation someday: tying monitoring software into pump controls in order to make pumping decisions that best reflect real time water level conditions. “Right now when these guys look at static reports, they’re getting inundated with data,” he said recently at his Santa Barbara, California office. “It’s like drinking from a firehose. They can’t respond fast enough.” In many locales, it’s only financially feasible to measure wells a few times per year, meaning water managers often rely upon stale data to make water use decisions that could affect the future viability of groundwater aquifers.

Waning water supply is a problem all over the American West. The Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to a huge swath of agricultural land from Texas all the way to South Dakota is running dry from overpumping. Part of the problem is the myriad state, federal, and local agencies involved in water use there. Inconsistencies between monitoring, pumping, and regulatory methods which make it nearly impossible to manage such a widespread resource. With so many straws jammed in the same huge, but rapidly dwindling pool, adversarial relationships are inevitable. Kram’s vision is to unify different entities together under a common system, allowing them to work together to get the most from their common resource.

If this summer’s spate of drought and wildfire have been any indication, the weather is not changing for the better where water supplies are concerned. The national coffers appear ill equipped to deal with the roster of aging dams across the country, so other storage options are likely needed. While a certain number of dams will always be needed, storing water in groundwater basins makes a lot of sense in certain locations. Whether water managers adopt technology like the one Groundswell offers or find other efficiency upgrade options, creative solutions for water distribution problems are crucial. Aside from the large number of people residing in arid and semi-arid regions, a significant volume of agricultural food products comes from such places. Over the long haul, keeping close tabs on water use will be what keeps them from withering.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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