Rebalancing water use in the American West

Over-allocation is draining vital groundwater aquifers and harming rivers

EDF envisions a future in which water laws, policies and social norms incentivize progress towards sustainability instead of penalizing it. That way, over time, we can ensure that our cities, farming communities and ecosystems become more resilient in the face of climate change and a growing population.

Focused on the Colorado River Basin and Central Valley in California, our strategies are three-fold.

Reverse groundwater depletion

In California, only about 5% of freshwater is above ground. The rest is groundwater, and without it, some rivers dry up.

During the drought, the state's largest water users – agriculture and cities – have relied excessively on groundwater to continue business as usual. The resultant over pumping has reduced river flows, caused land to sink faster than ever before and left many poor communities without access to any water at all.

EDF is developing an open source tool kit to help groundwater basin districts comply with the state's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) ahead of schedule and reverse this alarming trend.

To ensure a participatory approach to implementation of SGMA, we are also providing workshops to rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley in partnership with Rural Community Assistance Corporation.

Get water markets right

Groundwater and water markets are inextricably linked. As groundwater pumping is managed to prevent overdraft, more surface water will need to be freed up to meet demand. Unfortunately, California's water market is bogged down by patchwork regulations that discourage conservation and water trading.

In Better Access. Healthier Environment. Prosperous Communities, EDF recommends reforms to California's water market that can help make more water available for ecosystems and disadvantaged communities without building expensive new infrastructure. 

Reward sustainable ag practices

Across the West, agriculture consumes nearly 80 percent of water allocated to human use – so even small improvements in water conservation and efficiency can deliver big benefits to habitats and wildlife.

EDF is working to create incentives that reward farmers and ranchers for practices that return water to rivers, such as our work in Arizona to rebalance supply and demand in the Lower Colorado River, or that improve wetlands and riparian ecosystems, such as our Central Valley Habitat Exchange in California.

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