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Groundwater and Stream Interaction in California’s Central Valley: Insights for Sustainable Groundwater Management

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) | June 16th, 2016

Sustainable water management requires ensuring ecosystem water needs are met in balance with water needs for people. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is working across California to demonstrate how to achieve this balance in the context of integrated water management programs. Sustainable water management must also recognize that surface water and groundwater resources are interconnected and that proper management of these resources includes understanding this interaction and managing the resources accordingly. Management of groundwater and surface water systems in an integrated manner is impeded by California water law and policy, which has separate rules and regulations for managing groundwater and surface water resources.

The Central Valley of California is the hub of the state’s water supply system. An extensive network of dams and canals supplies surface water to users within the Central Valley as well as to the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Coast, and Southern California. Analysis of information collected in this study reveals that just within the Central Valley, agricultural and urban sectors use an average of 13 million acre-feet (MAF) of surface water and over 8 MAF of groundwater per year. Approximately 2 MAF of water is exported annually to areas outside the Central Valley.

Because the availability of surface water supplies varies significantly from year to year, groundwater use also varies considerably on annual basis. In an average year, groundwater meets about 40% of the state’s water demand and up to 60% or more during droughts, when groundwater provides a water supply buffer against economic and environmental harm from water scarcity (DWR, 2014). In some areas, groundwater provides 100% of the supply, even in wetter years, and then is heavily pumped during drought. In other locations, where surface water supplies are reasonably abundant, groundwater use may be relatively light during wetter years, but more heavily pumped during drier years when surface water supplies are cut back. Accordingly, the impact of groundwater use is much more evident during dry years, and especially in drought conditions. A case in point is the drought condition of 2013-15. This drought is exerting significant stress on the state’s water supply. The surface water deliveries have been reduced dramatically, to near zero in many regions; therefore, agricultural and municipal water users in the Central Valley and other parts of the state that normally rely on surface water for much of their supplies, are now greatly increasing their use of groundwater to meet their needs.

A 2014 UC Davis report indicates that expected increase in Central Valley groundwater pumping would be in the range of 20% to 25%, during the 2014 irrigation season. To the authors’ knowledge, there are no reports of actual estimates of increase in groundwater use for the recent drought conditions. The long-term increase in groundwater pumping and especially recent drought related increases in pumping would translate into significantly more adverse impacts on the surface water and stream systems, as well as groundwater dependent ecosystems. In addition, this increase in groundwater pumping could potentially result in more land subsidence throughout the valley. The drought has also affected the irrigated lands under cultivation. A November 2014 DWR publication “Public Update for Drought Response” 3 reported that based on NASA satellite imagery, approximately 700,000 acres of land were estimated idled between 2011 and 2014. Majority of these acreages idled are reported to be due to the drought conditions, although, some were also due to normal agronomic practices, crop markets, and other reasons.

This report provides the results of a number of analyses and evaluations of Central Valley hydrologic conditions using the California Central Valley Groundwater-Surface Water Simulation Model (C2VSim). The study examines important hydrologic and operational characteristics and behaviors of the California’s Central Valley water system during the historical development in the Valley. In addition, the study presents results of model simulations conducted to assess potential impacts of several water management scenarios. The results of this study contribute significantly to the understanding of how management of groundwater and surface water are interrelated and will inform the development of more effective integrated water management in the Central Valley and throughout California.

The interaction between groundwater and surface water resources has been evaluated and illustrated by many researchers. As early as 1941, Theis (1941) documented the hydraulic connection between stream and aquifer systems and quantitatively described the general behavior of stream-groundwater systems. Many others, including Glover & Balmer (1954) and Hantush (1965) built on Theis’ work, which demonstrated and confirmed the basic principles of hydraulic connection between stream and aquifer systems. In recent years, significant work has been conducted regarding regional impacts of groundwater pumping and operation on regional surface water systems. For example, the recent USGS study (Barlow & Leake, 2012) presents original findings of the stream-aquifer interaction in the context of sustainable groundwater management.

In an effort to quantify the interaction between the groundwater and the surface water system, DWR’s C2VSim model was employed in this study. The C2VSim model was originally developed in 1990 for DWR, U. S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), and California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) as the Central Valley Groundwater and Surface water Model (CVGSM) (James M. Montgomery Consulting Engineers, 1990a). Subsequently, the model was enhanced through numerous key applications, including the Central Valley Project Improvement Act – Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (CVPIA-PEIS). In 2005, the CVGSM model was upgraded to the newly developed Integrated Water Flow Model (IWFM) platform, and was renamed the C2VSim model. The detailed features of the model are described and presented in Section 2 of this report. The C2VSim model is a leading Central Valley-wide integrated hydrologic model adopted by DWR and many other regional and state-wide agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to evaluate various water management scenarios throughout the Valley. This report is organized in six sections: Section 1: Provides the background information and lays out the goals and objectives of this study. Section 2: Provides information on the status of C2VSim model, refinements made during this study, and assumptions on the modeling analysis. Section 3: Discusses simulation of the historical hydrologic conditions in the Central Valley. Section 4: Provides the assumptions and results of the existing baseline conditions, assuming that no changes to the facilities and their operations, as well as water management actions, take place over the course of a predetermined hydrologic condition. Section 5: Provides a description of three water management scenarios that may have major impacts on the future of surface water and groundwater interaction in Central Valley. Results of simulation of these management scenarios are presented and discussed in detail. Section 6: Provides conclusions from this study and a list of recommendations for future work.


Central Valley, groundwater dependent ecosystems, Groundwater Exchange, groundwater-surface water interaction, modeling, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)

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