Amid Drought, Californians Talk Water

Lake Mathews Reservoir-1
Altman Plants’ captures and recycles water at all of its facilities. A reservoir at its Riverside County location is shown.

Three years into one of its worst droughts in history, much of the state of California is at “exceptional” or “extreme” drought levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In some areas, people are facing surface water cuts of up to 95 percent, forcing them to rely on groundwater pumped from wells — one resource that has never been regulated in California.

The dire situation has growers making increased efforts to conserve water in their operations, while also trying to cater to customers who are trying to do the same at home. It also has the state government taking a closer look at how exactly its water is allocated.

Regulating Groundwater: A Long-Term Solution

In an effort to manage the state’s groundwater reserves, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on September 16 that will regulate the state’s groundwater supply. Unlike most western states, California has never monitored and managed its wells, which has led to a free-for-all approach to pumping groundwater. With a lack of regulation, individuals have basically been pumping more water than flows into aquifers, year after year, says Doug Parker, director of the California Institute For Water Resources.

The goal of the new law, which will take effect in January, is to have sustainable management of groundwater regulations, says Parker. Groundwater basins have natural recharge, he says, and communities will have to determine an allocation plan to match inflow.

The regulations are meant to be a long-term solution for the state. They will require local basins to create sustainable plans by 2020. The law doesn’t specify who is in charge of creating the plan; it’s up to local government entities to decide. The state Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water allocations, would step in and develop plans for municipalities that don’t do it on their own. Plans must be implemented by 2040.

Parker says that not knowing how it’s going to work out is making many of those in agriculture nervous. Ultimately, he says he believes the long run implications of the new legislation will be that government will have to restrict the amount that people are pumping from wells.

Growers Invest In Water Conservation

The drought is having a noticeable impact on greenhouse and nursery growers, according to Lorence Oki, cooperative Extension specialist of landscape horticulture at the University of California Davis. One impact is on sales, because residents have been encouraged not to install new landscapes or replace plants, because new plantings require additional water to establish them. In addition, there is a statewide moratorium suspending new plantings by state agencies.

According to Oki, water for agricultural use has been regulated indirectly through the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program.

“This essentially says that if you participate in irrigated ag production, then runoff from those properties must meet water quality standards,” Oki says. “So this means that runoff either needs to be eliminated or captured and treated. In either case, water conservation is necessary to meet compliance.”

This regulation has been in place for more than 10 years, so water conservation in greenhouses and nurseries has been happening for awhile, Oki says.

Altman Plants in Vista, Calif., hasn’t had to face any water restrictions yet, but the operation is certainly being careful and taking steps to ensure they are saving a lot more, owner Ken Altman says.

Altman Plants has California locations in Vista, North San Diego, Riverside County and Salinas.

Altman captures water on all of its properties, and, as of recently, it now also recycles the water on all of its properties. The operation recently started recycling water at its biggest nursery for the first time.

“We saved two acre-feet the first day,” Altman said.

Besides Altman’s own investment, the business has received grants from the Metropolitan Water District, the local water district (Western Municipal) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the project.

Water Rights Allocate More Than The State Has

Researchers from UC, Davis reported that California has allocated five times more surface water than the state actually has, making it hard for regulators to determine whose supplies should be cut during a drought.

The state has a two-tiered rights system: riparian and appropriative. Riparian rights usually come with owning a parcel of land that is adjacent to a source of water, and allows landowners to draw surface water on his or her property. The appropriative rights system is a historical rights system, and the rights pass down with the land. Those who have been established the longest have senior rights.

“Basically, you maintained that right. No one’s ever looked at the system to see how it all adds up,” Parker says. “If everyone used all their water rights every year, it wouldn’t add up, but that’s never happened.”

Now, in its current state of extreme drought, the state is looking at who owns the water.

Water rights allocations exceed the state’s actual surface water supply by about 300 million acre-feet, according to the report from UC Davis researchers. The state has allocated a total maximum allowable use of 370 million acre-feet of surface water, but only 70 million acre-feet is available in a year of good precipitation, according to the researchers’ review of active water rights on record (read the full report at

Everybody’s water situation in California is different, depending on where they are in the state, Parker says.

“Rain comes November through March, and then there’s nothing after. So we have a huge infrastructure system to move water around,” Parker says.

But this is the third year of major drought, and so far, there have been significant surface water cuts. The severity of the cuts depend on local suppliers, and so they vary all across the state. Parker explains that there are three levels of water allocation:

• The federally run Central Valley Project, which affects mostly growers in the Central Valley (cuts dropped the allocations to 5 to 75 percent)
• The State Water Project, which serves some farmers, as well, although allocations were cut to 5 percent this year.
• Local suppliers, who have their own supplies in addition to water that is funneled from the state and federal levels.
Those with junior water rights (typically receiving 5 to 25 percent of their usual allocation), were the ones forced to turn to groundwater supply, Parker says.

Corona GF (3)
A Garden Friendly event at Home Depot in Corona, Calif.

Groundwater Reserves Give Relief

A recent study from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences shows that the state is managing in the drought due to groundwater reserves. The study found that the drought is responsible for the greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third.

Groundwater pumping is expected to replace most river water losses, with some areas more than doubling their pumping rate over the previous year, the study said. More than 80 percent of this replacement pumping occurs in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin.

The study also found that 428,000 acres, or 5 percent of irrigated cropland, is going out of production in the Central Valley, Central Valley Coast and Southern California, due to drought.

The Central Valley is the hardest hit, particularly the Tulare Basin, with projected losses of $800 million in crop revenue and $447 million in additional well-pumping costs.

Overdraft of groundwater is expected to continue through 2015, regardless of El Niño conditions.

Agriculture on the Central Coast and in Southern California will be less affected by this year’s drought, with about $10 million in lost crop and $6.3 million in additional pumping costs.

If the drought continues for two more years, groundwater reserves will slowly decrease, while costs and losses will slowly increase due to groundwater depletion (read the full report at

Parker says the sustainability of groundwater pumping depends on where you are located in the state.
“In some parts of the state, the groundwater table will fall 10 to 50 feet this year. I don’t think we’re going to hit the bottom of the aquifers, but if everyone pumps, people who have older wells that aren’t as deep, won’t have water anymore.”

More Storage May Be The Solution

While most of Altman’s properties rely on an allocation of municipal surface water, the Salinas property is the only one on groundwater.

A desalinization plant is in progress in Carlsbad, Calif., and it will be delivering water to businesses and residents of San Diego County by 2016, according to the project’s website (

Altman says even though the water will be much more expensive, “it’s going to make a lot of difference around here.” He estimated that the cost of the water would be $2,200 per acre foot, compared to the roughly $1,500 per acre foot it costs his business now.

As for the Salinas property, Altman says it’s too soon to tell what kind of impact future groundwater regulations will have on it. More than anything, Altman sees a need for more surface water storage in California. He says adequate storage is the reason Southern California is still in reasonable shape three years into the drought.

“We just need to make sure we capture all the water we can,” Altman says.

Parker echoed his sentiment, saying “we need to look at our storage systems and see how we’re managing those.”

“In wet years, we can capture water and save it for dry years, but we store a lot of our water as snow in the winter and spring,” Parker says. “If we have less snow, then that’s not going to be available. That’s going to change our management structure.”

The Push For Drought Tolerant Plants

In California, brown is the new green, or at least that’s the mentality state agencies have been trying to promote among residents, says Oki.

“Homeowners appear to be changing their landscapes, taking out their conventional landscapes and replacing them with more low water use, efficient ones,” says Oki.

Altman says he has seen an effect on sales this year — particularly on annuals. He says warmer temperatures day after day have made people more aware of the drought conditions, and has steered them away from plants that use more water.

“It’s really top of mind for people here,” Altman says. “This time it’s actually getting on their minds.”

Altman has had cactus and succulents as a core part of its production the entire time it’s been in business. About eight to 10 years ago, it added an emphasis on perennials and drought tolerant plants, Altman says. These plant programs are now timely and getting lots of attention.

“Sales are certainly going toward plants people recognize as drought tolerant,” he says. “We’re certainly being conservative on those products that use more water. The growth area for us is going to be drought tolerant material.”

To help get the word out about low-water options, Altman participates in Garden Friendly events at Home Depot on the weekends, which serve to promote drought tolerant plants and water conservation.

Oki says it is hoped that consumers start demanding plants for landscapes that are Mediterranean-climate adapted and appropriate for California.

However, he notes that “although it is okay to take out existing plants that are high water users, it really isn’t a good time to replant, since we know that newly planted plants require additional water for establishment.”

Determining the water use of landscape plants is an area where Oki, along with Karrie Reid, cooperative Extension horticulture advisor in San Joaquin County, have been conducting research (

In addition, Dave Fujino, executive director of the UC Davis California Center for Urban Horticulture, with the UC Davis Arboretum, initiated a program promoting the Arboretum All-Stars, which are plants appropriate for landscapes in the Central Valley ( ).

For more information on conserving water in the landscape, visit, which promotes reducing irrigation to turf in homeowners’ landscapes, or the California Urban Water Conservation Council’s website (, where you can download the 2014 Landscape Symposia Report, which covers the council’s vision for a new norm in California landscapes.

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