The Age of Water
CSUEB Associate Professor Jean Moran Digs into the Mystery of California’s Precious Groundwater Stores
BY KRISTA DOSSETTI
“As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals.”
Chief Crowfoot, Siksika Tribe (circa 1825-1890)
Cal State East Bay Associate Professor and Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences Chair Jean Moran takes off one hiking boot and makes her way between two stone walls embedded in the side of a mountain slope. The walls form a half-circle at their deepest point in the hill, where they shelter a shallow pool in the belly of an enclosure. In the water, a handful of tiny cyclones slowly twist beneath the surface. Their movement is so subtle, the fine sand bottom is barely disturbed — only by focusing on one small flurry does another come into view at its periphery, and then another, and then another.
According to the Winnemem Wintu (“Middle Water People”) tribe, these tiny flurries — groundwater discharge points — are the genesis of life, and their location, Mount Shasta’s Panther Meadows (elev. 7,500 ft.), is sacred ground. There was a time when the silent whirls were loud and vigorous twisters, an underground faucet turned on full blast. In 2007, just a year after the walls were built to protect the spring, the water ran dry for the first time in the history of the indigenous tribe.
“All the water that will ever be is, right now.”
National Geographic, October 1993
The last time Moran was at Panther Meadows was late April and there was snow on the ground. Now, after a summer of record heat, some of the water sources she intended to revisit are gone altogether. Even with just a few inches left at the coveted Native American spring, it’s a chance for Moran to capture a particular type of sample at a critical place and time.
The professor is after groundwater. And she wants it right where it pushes up from deep in the earth, before any other elements can distort the hidden chemistry inside — the chemistry that tells the story of how old the water is, where it comes from, and how long it might last.
Keeping her shoed foot on the dry edge of the spring and slipping her bare one into the pool, Moran bends down to submerge a small amber bottle and take away just a few ounces of the groundwater for testing (see How It Works slide).
Her team, made up of CSUEB graduate student Elizabeth Peters and Brad Esser, research scientist and expert lead at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), is at the ready. Esser obtains GPS coordinates while Moran dips a digital probe in the water and begins calling out numbers. Peters scribbles the information down. When the process is finished, the group packs up, treks back to a federal government-issued van, and drives to the next trailhead.
“The crisis of our diminishing water resources is just as severe … as any wartime crisis we have ever faced. Our survival is just as much at stake as it was at the time of Pearl Harbor, or the Argonne, or Gettysburg, or Saratoga.”
Jim Wright, U.S. Representative, The Coming Water Famine, 1966
“We’re trying to figure out how long the groundwater resides in the subsurface, where that groundwater gets into the subsurface, and how much of it turns over every year,” Moran explains. “Is it this year’s snowmelt that’s showing up in the groundwater? Or last year’s? Or even longer? So that, if you have a year where not very much of it gets underground, how long will it take for you to notice that at the well, and how long can you keep pumping at the same level and not have a detrimental effect?”
These are the questions currently plaguing many parts of California, and what the State Resources Water Board’s Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) program has contracted Moran through LLNL to find out. According to the professor, most of the state’s groundwater capital has never even been measured, especially in the agricultural and rural communities that rely on it most.
The answers will tell public works agencies and residents in the areas surrounding Mount Shasta which water sources are most vulnerable and which are most vital to protect in the years to come. “There’s no control. There’s no regulation,” Moran says. “It’s been out-of-sight, out-of-mind; people have been happy to put their pump into the ground and pump the water and not have to worry about it.”
In fact, some regulations have been recently implemented, but it will be years before they make an impact. In 2014, California became the last state in the Western U.S. to regulate groundwater through the Groundwater Sustainability Act, requiring locally controlled groundwater agencies to produce sustainability plans for overdrafted basins by 2020.
Many, including Moran, worry it will be too little too late, but the results she is collecting in Shasta are part of the solution. Once gathered, they will be compiled into a larger, landmark network of information. “We’ve worked for about 12 years collecting groundwater ages from all over the state, which is a unique data set not just in California but the world,” she says. Once the final research is in place, which includes locations in Southern California and several in the Central Valley, Moran will make them available to the water districts and consult on their sustainability plans for the future. “We are providing information about watersheds and aquifer systems where very little is currently known — it’s new information for the residents of the watershed, and for the water managers who may be deciding whether to drill a new well or not,” she says.
“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.”
The next hike of the day is 1.7 miles up the Bunny Flat Trail to the historic John Muir House, the second half at a 40 percent incline. At the top, the team meets the site manager of the John Muir House, who accompanies them up another 400 feet.
At the top of a raised stone trail, placed squarely in the face of a small, rocky foothill, is a padlocked trap door. Inside is a pure groundwater source, approximately 8,232 feet above sea level — one of her highest, Moran shares.
She, Peters, and Esser quickly fall into their synchronized routine, averaging about 30 minutes to take down the necessary numbers and fill the amber bottles and the larger plastic cube, all of which must be hauled back down to 6,900 feet.
On the descent, Moran talks about her work in hydrogeology (groundwater distribution and movement), the state of California’s water emergency on the whole, and the silver linings she sees in the current drought situation — the science that could provide crucial solutions for nearly 40 million people.
It’s no surprise that for the professor, the problem and the solution are one and the same — groundwater.
“What we’re really lacking in the state for the way that we’re living now, for the number of people who are here and the amount of agriculture that we do, is places to store the water when there are excess flows,” she says. “We have these big reservoirs but … there’s not many good locations left to put dams and we’re having less stored water in the snowpack,” which is what reservoirs were designed to capture.
Taking advantage of underground water storage is a two-part equation. First, Moran believes Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR) programs, which actively inject treated wastewater into the ground, are a necessity in large, urban areas.
“Orange County is a world leader,” Moran says. She’s referring to the county’s robust IPR, which has been producing enough purified wastewater to sustain 600,000 people since 2008.
“They don’t like to think of toilet to tap. You know, like drinking your toilet water. But you can make it as clean as the water on that table! You have to (have) confidence in this filtration system!”
California Governor Jerry Brown
“The technology is such that the water is perfectly potable. In fact, it’s better than potable,” she asserts. “It passes all of mthe water quality standards that people have, over many, many years developed to keep people safe. Depending on the sophistication of the (above-ground) cleaning treatments, water can be pumped back out any time from 60 days to six months.”
In the Bay Area, “Santa Clara is furthest along in terms of going that direction,” she adds, but other water districts, including Alameda County, have explored the possibility of using their basins, too.
On a state level, “What we need (to think about) is, where are the good places to store water underground naturally? Where should we put some infrastructure so that when there is a big run-off event, we can divert that water, and allow it to infiltrate?” Moran continues.
Location is key to the conversation. Although the Central Valley covers the largest surface area and has been relying on groundwater stores for more than 150 years, chemicals from agricultural runoff and land subsidence must be taken into account.
“There’s elastic subsidence and inelastic subsidence,” Moran says. “You can permanently lose storage by collapsing the clay materials,” which is the likely case in the southern Central Valley, where the water table has dropped by hundreds of feet and wells have completely dried up.
For the agricultural piece, “Typically you have some improvements in water quality (by putting it underground), but there definitely needs to be some caution because you can put in good water and pump it up and there could be a contaminant like nitrate or arsenic in it,” she explains.
Although the pending El Niño (see below) is too imminent for farmers to benefit from intentionally sinking groundwater on a mass scale, Moran says many individuals could take the initiative to start building berms and hedgerows, among other anticipatory measures.
However, perhaps the most important piece of Moran’s ethos is the impact she’s having on generations to come. Of recharging groundwater for instance, graduate student Peters says, “I believe it’s the only solution.”
“It’s interesting,” Moran reflects, nearing the bottom of the trail. “My work began with the deepest groundwater I could find, and over time it’s gotten closer and closer to the surface. Now, I’m interested in what’s happening just underfoot, with the water that we drink, and use, and that impacts people. I’m interested in the water that we have to protect.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT EL NIÑO: CSUEB Lecturer and NBC Bay Area Meteorologist
Rob Mayeda Weighs in on the Coming Storm
Is the Predicted El Niño Really Coming?
NASA put out that there’s an alleged “Godzilla El Niño.” This is referring to a very strong-phase version of ENSO, El Niño Southern Oscillation. There is a 95-100 percent chance of an El Niño, but an El Niño doesn’t always guarantee you’re going to get average rainfall. It’s a moving target and as it continues developing we’ll hopefully be able to lock in what’s coming.
Will it Pull Us Out of the Drought?
The amount of water it would take … we’re in a two- to three-year water deficit, so it would be very unlikely to get that in one year. Looking back at ’82-‘83 and ’97-‘98, in those two El Niño events you had almost statewide above-average rainfall totals, north to south. Usually though, it’s Southern California and we (in Northern California) have equal chances. But if the El Niño stays in a very strong phase, the Bay Area has a better chance. It’s a rare pinnacle to have an El Niño that could rival those years.
It could also be a good reservoir filler, but the way the water retention system is in many parts of the state, a lot of it will run back into the ocean. Flooding goes up and protection of life and property is paramount. And, the snowpack is the other half to the story, which El Niño might not impact at all due to the warmth of the rain.