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California Counties Face Water Crunch

More than eight out of ten California counties will face frequent water shortages within 40 years. That’s the conclusion of a report released this week by Tetra Tech for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

See complete map of California, below. (Image: NRDC)

“This report is a real eye opener,” says Theo Spencer, senior advocate for the NRDC’s Climate Center. “It shows the toll climate change will take on the water resources in the U.S.”

Tetra Tech projects that climate change will exacerbate water problems in more than a third of counties across the US. In California, the outlook is worse. Forty-eight counties (83%) will be at risk by 2050, and 19 counties are on the critical list, those the report describes as under “extreme risk.” Only ten counties, mostly at the northern end of the state, were assigned to the low-risk category.

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Population: The “Other” Climate Debate

Recently I saw a startling graph, plotting world population from the Middle Ages to projections for 2050. The red line remains relatively flat for several centuries, starts ramping up around the time of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, and then takes off like a Roman candle right about the time of my own birth, in the mid-1950s. Granted, the steep rise was enhanced by the drawn-out time scale of that particular graph. As you shorten the time frame you’re looking at, the slope flattens out. But the numbers paint a sobering picture on their own.

A world population graph similar to the one I saw. Image: United Nations

World population from 1750 to 2020. Extending the curve leads to 9 billion people by 2050. Source: United Nations

I decided to plot some of my own family history against that curve. When my father entered the world on the eve of the Great Depression, there were barely two billion people populating the globe. By the time I came along, the number had nudged above three billion.  This was America’s legendary Baby Boom and the beginning of the Roman candle phase (an exponential growth trajectory which continues today). Should I be so fortunate (or unfortunate) to make it to my own century mark, demographers project that by then (2055), the Earth will be asked to support more than nine billion people. That’s a tripling of the world’s population just in my (theoretical) lifetime.

Population growth seldom takes center stage in discussions of climate change, though the connection is undeniable (heck, nine billion people just breathing is a lot of CO2).

Pakistan87712955_blogBiologist William Ryerson, President of the Washington-based Population Institute, says that population growth is “not an inconsequential impact on the climate crisis.” But breathing is not the problem; it’s consumption. Appearing on KQED’s Forum program with Michael Krasny, Ryerson said that were that prediction of nine billion people by 2050 to be realized, it would be “the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.”

Ryerson, who also heads the Population Media Center in Vermont, says we’ll be lucky to make it to nine billion. Ryerson said that in his view, “the resources just aren’t there,” for a doubling of the current population. He cites research by Stanford biologist Peter Vitousek, indicating that humans are already appropriating half of the total global “products of photosynthesis, i.e. all green plants.”

It seems that after decades of being dismissed by mainstream economists, 18th-century philosopher Thomas Malthus is getting a fresh hearing. Malthus made his reputation as a doomsayer in 1798, when he wrote that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

As procreation and climate change accelerate in tandem, the two forces may place a double bind on basic resources like water (see also Gretchen Weber’s post on “peak water“). Ryerson, who recently visited Pakistan, says that nation currently has 20% of the water that they had 50 years ago, on a per-capita basis, and “they’re on a 30-year doubling time,” meaning 368 million people by 2040.

The entire Forum program is available online.

Has the Southwest Passed “Peak Water”?

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

People have been talking about “peak oil” for decades now, debating when oil production will peak and then start to decline as remaining resources become scarcer and harder to access.   Less attention has been given to the idea of “peak water,” which is the subject of a new analysis by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.  The concepts of peak oil and peak water aren’t entirely analogous for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, overall, water is a renewable resource.  But there are limits to what water is renewable, and how fast supplies recharge.  While the world is not going to run out of water, the report authors argue, in parts of the world including the southwestern US, we’re likely long past the point of peak water.  That matters a lot, said study co-author Meena Palaniappan, because unlike oil, which is shipped across the world, water is still a local and regional issue.

“We’re not going to run out of water,” said Palaniappan, “but we’re going to see a change.  We’re at the end of cheap, easy access to water.  We’re going to have to go further, pay more, and expect less in terms of fresh water.”

The report divides peak water into three types: peak renewable water, the total annual supply of water from sources such as rainfall, rivers, and groundwater sources that are refilled relatively quickly; peak non-renewable water, which includes groundwater aquifers that either do not refill or do so extremely slowly; and peak ecological water, past which, the value of ecological services provided by water is greater than the value it provides in direct human services.  Or simply, it’s the point where taking water causes more ecological damage than it’s worth.

“The goal is to find the sweet spot, where we can maximize the human value water provides as well as the ecological value,” said Palaniappan.

In the western US, we are definitely past peak ecological water, said Palaniappan.  As evidence of this, she cited the Central Valley aquifer, which is being pumped down far faster than it can recharge and the Colorado River, which supplies Southern California with much of its water, and no longer reaches the ocean most years because every drop of it is appropriated for human use.

Last week, I was in Salt Lake City to talk with Terry Fulp, the Bureau of Reclamation‘s Deputy Regional Director of the Lower Colorado Region.  He said that after 10 years of drought on the Colorado, each of the seven states that draw from it are still getting their allotted water supply, and the reservoirs are about half full.  The Colorado River system, which supplies water to more than 30 million people, has a huge storage capacity, equal to four times the river’s annual flow, Fulp said. But increasing demand due to the drought and to population growth have the Bureau looking ahead at the challenges the system may be facing in the not-too-distant future.

“The supply and demand curves basically have crossed,” said Fulp.  “If you look over the last 100 years, the water supply has been above the demand, but demand has been growing, and essentially, today they have met.  We’re operating on a tight margin, a very tight margin, so the question is about projecting what we think the future will look like twenty years out.”

Like Palaniappan, Fulp says that conservation is critical and may become increasingly so in the near future. But even so, he said he doubts the demand for Colorado River water is going to decrease. The supply may, however.  Long droughts are common in the paleorecord, and water managers are planning for an additional 10-15% reduction in flow due to the effects of climate change.   This matters a great deal in a system where just about every drop is spoken for.  Fulp says that developing methods for accessing new water supplies, such as groundwater and desalinization plants, needs to be central to a long-term water management strategy for the region.

Playing the State Water Lottery

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

I don’t know Mark Cowin, the director of the state’s Department of Water Resources. I haven’t even met the man, in person. But after listening to and reading his pronouncements about the state’s water supply, I’d guess he’s a guy who would barely crack a smile if he found himself holding a winning lottery ticket. I hazard that opinion because even after today’s great news about the Sierra snowpack–which is a little like finding out the state has won its annual water lottery–what Cowin emphasizes is that California isn’t out of the woods after the dry spell of 2007-2009. But more about that to follow. First, the details on the DWR’s final Sierra snow survey.

DWR announced on Friday that statewide, the water content stored in the Sierra snow is at 143% of normal for the date; 188% in the northern Sierra, 121% in the central mountains, and 139% in the southern reaches of the range. Up and down the Sierra, those figures are more than double the levels of the past two years, and are up to seven times as much as surveyors found in the bone-dry spring of 2007.

Last week, the Department announced it would increase allocations from the State Water Project to 30% of the amount requested from 29 urban and agricultural customers. Today’s snowpack news prompted the department to say that it’s likely to increase deliveries. How much? “Only marginally,” Cowin said in a phone interview this afternoon. “We’ll have to run the numbers, and we’ll probably make that determination in the next week or two.”

How much water will State Water Project customers get, eventually? Let’s run some numbers of our own.

The main reason the department cites for the very tight supply in the midst of a year of “normal” precipitation is the continuing below-average levels at California’s biggest state-owned reservoir, Lake Oroville. As of Friday afternoon, the lake is at 72% of normal for the date and about 60% full. But the stats that Cowin’s water geeks are crunching aren’t about the level today, but where they guess it will be as runoff begins to pour from the snow-blanketed mountains through the Feather River watershed into Lake Oroville. DWR officials have insisted that it believes runoff will be held down because of dry conditions caused by the last three drought years. You wonder if they’ll still believe that after assessing the impact of an unusually wet April and its impact on the snowpack.

While pondering that, here are some other numbers to consider if you want to play what I’ll call the State Water Project Allocation Game:

  • After running far below its 2008-2009 levels all season, the water storage in Lake Oroville caught up and passed year-ago levels this week. The lake’s storage has increased six percent—more than 150,000 acre-feet—since last Friday.
  • As noted above, this year’s snowpack is better than double last year’s.
  • Last year, the state delivered 40 percent of requested water shipments to its SWP customers. The average allocation for the past 10 years is 68 percent.

Considering all of the above—last year’s deliveries, the snowpack, the sudden late-season surge in Lake Oroville’s levels—it’s a no-brainer that water deliveries will at least match last year’s 40 percent. The question is whether the allocation will go higher. All Cowin would say on that subject today is that he thinks that 45%, the amount DWR described two months ago as the upper limit for shipments this season, is still accurate.

But Cowin did say, as he has more and more frequently of late, that a preoccupation with the this year’s water level misses the point about California’s water reality.

“That’s why we’re so concerned when we get the black and white question, ‘Is the drought over,'” he said. “We are in a period of long scarcity in California. We have no idea what next year’s water supply picture will look like. It’s possible we could have two or three more dry years in a row. So we’re trying to get a message out that we need to have a new attitude about how we use water in California, and it shouldn’t depend on this week’s outlook. We need to conserve water just as a way of life.”

If you want to explore the state’s water supply picture for yourself, check out our California Reservoir Watch map, below:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map
View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

Latest Snow Survey Offers Hope

Frank Gehrke, left, weighs snow near Echo Summit, to measure water content. Photo: Molly Samuel

Frank Gehrke, left, weighs snow near Echo Summit, to measure water content. Photo: Molly Samuel

His clipboard doesn’t have quite same gravitas as a pair of stone tablets. Nonetheless, Frank Gehrke is sort of the Moses of California water. Once a month he comes down from the mountaintop with a pronouncement on the state of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. Today’s message: Whew.

The Department of Water Resources announced today that on average, the water content of California’s Sierra snowpack stands at 107% of “normal” for this date. The figure is derived from a combination of electronic sensors and manual surveys, including Gehrke’s, taken at various points along Highway 50. It’s the first time this season that the statewide average has clocked in above normal.

In the monthly DWR news release, Director Mark Cowin expressed some relief, while warning that the state is still struggling to overcome three abnormally dry winters prior to this one. DWR reports that Lake Oroville, the primary reservoir for the State Water Project, still stands at just 55% of it’s long-term average level for this date. Shasta Lake, however, the biggest reservoir on the federal Central Valley Project, is now above its normal level.

Cowin says the latest readings offer hope that water managers will be able to increase projected allocations to state water customers, currently set at 15% of requested amounts. DWR estimates that final allocations will be “in the range of 35-45%.” Over the past ten years, customers have averaged about two thirds of requested water. Farms often make up for shortfalls by pumping costlier groundwater.

Our interactive map shows the current status of California’s key reservoirs. We also have a short video that takes you into the field with Frank Gehrke, to see how he does his manual surveys.

More Water Likely for Farms and Cities–With a Catch

Craig Miller

What is now looking like a "normal" wet winter may mean bigger water allocations for crops. Photo: Craig Miller

We’d like to think that weather and water supply is a straightforward proposition. If rain falls in the lowlands and snow blankets the Sierra Nevada the way we expect it to, then we ought to have enough water to get us through the dry months ahead. But of course, California water is never that simple. The latest example: today’s state and federal announcements of projected  deliveries from two massive Central Valley water systems.

From the state: The Department of Water Resources said it’s increasing promised State Water Project deliveries from five percent–the amount projected last December 1–to 15%.

In a conference call with reporters, newly-appointed DWR Director Mark Cowin called the 15% figure “very conservative.” He said that if the wet season continues on its current “average” path, the department could deliver between 35-and-45% of the contracted amount.  Cowin said where final allocations would land in that range depends on pumping restrictions currently in place to protect endangered salmon and smelt.  “That spread between 35 and 45 percent is based on how the fisheries agencies ultimately apply the existing rules to protect fish–and how much resulting flexibility we have to pump water from the Delta,” Cowin said.

The bottom line from the DWR announcement: Three years of drought have taken a toll on water supplies that will take more than one good year of rain and snow to reverse. Cowin says runoff from the healthy Sierra snowpack will be lower than normal, as more water is absorbed by relatively dry soil.

At the same time, the State Water Project’s biggest reservoir, Lake Oroville, stands at 54% of its normal level for this time of year. The other linchpin for SWP supply, San Luis Reservoir, is at 80 percent of normal overall. But most of that water is already spoken for and is unavailable for meeting this year’s state water contract commitments.

As the state was adjusting its projections, officials also weighed in on 2010 deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the initial allocation from the CVP to San Joaquin Valley farmers and other users is 5%. That’s better than nothing–which was the early allocation last year. But it was only part of the news.

Salazar disclosed that negotiations involving Senator Dianne Feinstein, other members of the California congressional delegation, water contractors, and environmental groups have hammered out a plan that could deliver nearly 40% of contracted supplies to CVP customers. But there’s a big “if” in the picture: Those expanded deliveries only happen if the wet season continues to be wet.

Weeks of controversy preceded Salazar’s announcement. Areas of the San Joaquin Valley that have gone thirsty during the three-year drought–notably the Westlands Water District–have been agitating for more federal water even if it means overriding Endangered Species Act protections for fish.

Feinstein went to bat for Westlands and other federal water customers, proposing an amendment to a jobs bill that would set aside Delta pumping limits in order to guarantee deliveries to Valley water users. That sparked outrage from those working to save the Delta fisheries and a sharply critical letter from a dozen House members. But it also apparently prompted the talks that led to Salazar’s announcement. In a statement, Feinstein said she was pleased with the projected allocations announced today and praised the “creative thinking” that went into it. But she added that she’s watching how water shipments play out. Although she has shelved her water amendment for now, she said, “I reserve the right to bring it back should it become necessary.”

Here’s our updated KQED California Reservoir Watch, which gives a pretty good picture of the state’s water storage:

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View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

UC Scientist: Don’t Blame the Cows

Cody Sheehy is a rangeland ecologist and independent documentary producer.

87736822By Cody Sheehy

A couple of months ago, nearly lost amid the “Hopenhagen” hype,  the University of California, Davis (UCD) put out a press release with an admonition: “Don’t Blame Cows for Climate Change.” The release was a first look at some work conducted by UCD Associate Professor and Air Quality Specialist Frank Mitloehner. His study examines the greenhouse gases, or GHGs, emitted by the livestock sector.  As California’s air regulators turn more attention toward methane in particular, the report remains timely.

Mitloehner’s paper is entitled: “Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change,” and was published in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy. The paper is a synthesis of current science on the cattle-climate connection. Mitloehner has been updating some of that science in recent years.

In 2008, I stopped by his cluster of “bio bubbles;” airtight domes that serve as high-tech stables for cows. Inside, Mitloehner had set up simulated dairy operations, measuring GHGs emitted by the cows’ digestive process and decomposition of the manure. The numbers then in common use had been generated in the 1930s.

Research "bio-bubbles" at UC Davis. Photo: Cody Sheehy

Research "bio-bubbles" at UC Davis. Photo: Cody Sheehy

Mitloehner says cattle gets a bum rap in the media, and points to some examples, including a 2007 story in Time magazine, which included assertions like: “Which is responsible for more global warming: your BMW or your Big Mac? Believe it or not, it’s your Big Mac,” and “A 16-oz T-bone is like a hummer on a plate . . ”

In many cases, Mitloehner says the statements are crafted from an influnencial 2006 United Nations report entitled: “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”  According to the executive summary, “The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.”

But Mitloehner points to a quote deeper in the report:

“The respiration of livestock makes up only a very small part of the net release of carbon that can be attributed to the livestock sector. Much more is released indirectly by other channels, including: the burning of fossil fuel to produce mineral fertilizers used in feed production, methane release from the breakdown of fertilizers and from animal manure, land-use changes for feed production and for grazing, land degradation, fossil fuel use during feed and animal production and fossil fuel use in production and transport of processed and refrigerated animal products.”

Mitloehner cautions that the transportation number they use only accounts for tailpipe emissions. To be even-handed, he says, the authors should’ve incorporated emissions from the entire oil industry, including refinement of the oil and production of cars. In the UCD release, Mitloehner calls it a “lopsided ‘analysis” and “a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue.”

Meanwhile, the Bio-bubbles have been generating some interesting numbers. Mitloehner found that the amount of methane the cows respire (belch) and how much is released in the breakdown of animal manure is quite different from what previous research had calculated. In combination, these two sources represent the most direct GHGs from the livestock industry, even if they’re not the largest GHG emitter associated with the industry. They’re also the most out of date.

Emission factors used in “Livestock’s Long Shadow” provide an estimate of methane respiration of about 86 million tonnes (metric tons) of methane (CH4) and 17.5 million tonnes of CH4 annually from manure decomposition. In the annex of the UN report, the authors write: “Obviously, great improvements to the estimates of emission factors could be made if more data on nutrition and production were available.” And so it is that inside his bio-bubbles, Mitloehner has come up with numbers much lower than those that represented the conventional wisdom since 1938.

All in all, we’ve got a discussion about comparing apples and oranges (more appealing than manure, granted) and some updated numbers that lower the emissions of livestock in one category. As with any scientific paper, there will probably be debate on both of these points and new ones, but let’s look at the broader consequences. Will industry look at this study and see an incentive to update and revise carbon emission numbers all across the board?

According to Emilo Laca, an agricultural ecologist at U. C. Davis, some of these questions will be fodder for policy debates that lie outside the realm of science. He says “The real question is, ‘How are we going to split this up?'” Laca used a hypothetical problem to explain: Let’s say that a certain livestock industry consumed 30% of soybean production as a food source. Livestock producers might concede that they should be accountable for 30% of carbon emissions related to soybeans. It makes sense. It’s what the numbers say. Others might counter that without this certain livestock industry, the soybean market would behave differently and some amount–lets guess 70%–wouldn’t need to be planted. Therefore, the livestock industry in this example is responsible for 70% of the emissions, not 30%. Science can support both interpretations. As Laca says, the decision is how to “split” things up. And ultimately, those decisions may fall to policy wonks.

No Surprises in Season’s First Snow Survey

California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) today released the first of the season’s surveys of snow conditions, an indicator of how much runoff we can expect to fill reservoirs in the spring.

Snow surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Phillips Station survey site. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Snow surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Phillips Station survey site. Photo: Gretchen Weber

At the Phillips Station survey site, just off U.S. Highway 50, lead surveyor Frank Gehrke found about the conditions he expected; water content of the accumulated snowfall there weighed in at 75% of normal. For the five survey sites in the region defined by DWR as the Central Sierra, and for all Sierra survey sites combined, water content was a slightly healthier 85%. While the average represents a slight improvement over last year at this time, when statewide water content clocked in at 76%, DWR officials emphasized that conditions are still below normal. And with the accumulating effects of three prior relatively dry years, some major reservoirs remain at low levels. A sobering example from today’s DWR release:

“Lake Oroville, the principal storage reservoir for the State Water Project (SWP), is at 29 percent of capacity, and 47 percent of average storage for this time of year.”

With several months remaining in the state’s traditional “wet” season, the January survey is perhaps the least reliable indicator of final runoff. According to Gehrke, the season can “go either way from here.”

In a 110-page California Drought Update just released, DWR wrote that:

“Impacts being experienced in the present three-year drought are relatively more severe than those experienced during prior dry conditions – such as the first three years of the 1987-92 drought.”

As such, the agency says it “will move aggressively forward to plan for a potentially dry 2010…”

In February Governor Schwarzenegger declared a drought state of emergency for nine counties that is technically still in effect, though appeals to the federal government for disaster relief have gone unanswered. The Governor has also called on all urban water consumers to cut back their use by 20%.

Climate Lobby Bulks Up

Some California corporations figure prominently in a new tally of climate-related lobbying activity.

A continuing study from the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity (CPI) shows that climate-relating lobbying reached a fever pitch in the third quarter of this year, with 140 new organizations showing up in government-required registrations. That brings the total number of registered climate lobbyists to 1,160, with most activity centered on two climate bills–one passed by the House and another pending in the Senate.

The Center’s latest report is called “The Climate Lobby from Soup to Nuts”–and they mean it literally. CPI reports that registered climate lobbyists now include such diverse interests as the makers of Campbell Soup and Blue Diamond Growers (“a can a week” may not be all they ask, after all).

Not surprisingly, “Big Oil” is a big spender. San Ramon-based Chevron Corp. clocks in at more than $36 million since 2003. And PG&E, one of California’s largest utilities, is shown spending more than $34 million just in the last two years ($19 million in the third quarter of 2008 alone).

Silicon Valley is well represented on the list, including some firms whose stake in climate policy is less obvious; eBay, Google, Hewlett-Packard and Intel are all in the half-million-plus club. Government records show Intel declaring more than $12 million on climate lobbying since 2003.

Marianne Lavelle, a staff writer who helped compile the figures for CPI, says that companies with a stake in green energy technologies are seeking more of a voice in the process, to counter fossil fuel interests, and that technology-oriented venture capital firms are becoming more of a visible presence on the lobbying radar.

The CPI data also includes major environmental lobbies such as the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, which logs $1 million over the past two years. Lavelle says what it doesn’t capture is lobbying at the state level, nor does it reflect spending on “grassroots” organizing or money spent on advertising campaigns designed to steer public opinion on climate issues.

The CPI study site includes a searchable database of all federally registered climate lobbyists.

California Losing Groundwater Rapidly

Nearly lost amid the three-ring circus of Copenhagen coverage is the annual gathering in San Francisco of the American Geophysical Union. We’re doing our best to staff selected sessions there. Climate Watch contributor Lauren Sommer was there for some grim new research on groundwater in the Central Valley.

California’s Central Valley has lost nearly enough water in the past six years to fill Lake Mead, according to NASA scientists presenting at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco this week. Nearly two-thirds of that loss–20.3 cubic kilometers of water–is from groundwater depletion.

With the recent drought, groundwater has been an important water source for California’s Central Valley agriculture, but getting a picture of that water use hasn’t been easy. Water districts haven’t been required to report groundwater pumping in their areas. That’s something the recent Delta overhaul package of legislation now requires, but according to Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine, the records to date aren’t very complete. Wells are sparse and the measurements have been sporadic.

The majority of the water loss since 2003 has been focused in the San Joaquin Basin at the southern end of the Central Valley, which is losing 3.5 cubic kilometers of water each year. The bulk of that loss is the result of groundwater depletion.

Famiglietti says this is due to a “triple threat” in California.  First came the drought, then decreased water allocation and more groundwater pumping. Finally, with less surface water, the groundwater aquifers have a reduced opportunity to recharge. Famiglietti says it’s clear that California is using groundwater at an unsustainable rate, which “poses significant threats to food production in US and the California economy.”

Groundwater basins in the Central Valley. Image: NASA

Groundwater basins in the Central Valley. Image: NASA

This large-scale picture of California’s groundwater comes from NASA’s Grace project. Twin satellites orbiting the Earth detect changes in the gravitational field, caused by the movement of water. Those satellite measurements act like a“scale at the bottom of the ocean weighing how much water is in each of these spots,” according to NASA’s Michael Watkins.  They also detect changes in snow, surface water and soil moisture.

The Grace project, though, is becoming a “senior citizen,” according to Watkins and is reaching the end of its technological life. He says quality of their water research, which has included other spots around the globe, speaks to the need for another generation of the project.  Famiglietti says, though this data can’t replace ground measurements, he hopes it will be taken into account by state agencies faced with making the tough choices about California’s aquifers.