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Science and Man Work Together for Land and Water

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The Martis Valley groundwater basin, which has one principal aquifer, includes the service territory of two water districts (TDPUD and Northstar Community Services District), is in the Placer County Water Agency’s sphere (though the agency no longer serves water in this basin as of a year ago), and includes three land use agencies (Town of Truckee, Nevada County, and Placer County). All six agencies have compliance obligation under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

As highlighted in our feature story on the preceding p. 12, wildfire stands front and center in terms of management priorities for the Forest Service. However, across the spectrum of our natural resources, regulation and protection is complicated and expensive — be it land, water, minerals, plants, animals, and even air. The process typically begins with obtaining good data. From there, diligence on the part of stakeholders and decision makers determines the fate of our resources and region. Below, we outline two examples of key resources being managed carefully with a blend of science and teamwork.

The Disappearing West

Truckee scientific collective highlights the rapid loss of our natural lands

The western United States lost more than 105 million acres of natural land to development in just a decade (from 2001 to 2011), according to a startling report by Truckee-based Conservation Science Partners (CSP) appropriately titled Disappearing West. The combined area of this vanished natural land is bigger than Yellowstone National Park, at a rate equal to a football-field size piece being lost every 2.5 minutes.

The report was sponsored by the Center for American Progress based in Washington, D.C., and aimed to gather scientific data on the loss of western natural lands. It was compiled by “leveraging dozens and dozens of different data sets,” said Brett Dickson, president and chief scientist at CSP. The company drew on high-resolution satellite images, road inventories, maps for oil wells, gas pipelines, and other energy developments, enabling the scientists to narrow results down to county levels. Placer County lost more than 14,000 acres to development, and Nevada County 7,400 acres. Both of these counties’ losses were proportionally more than 100 percent higher than those of the state as a whole — an alarming statistic.

At, one can find detailed maps that show land use changes over the 10-year study period. More than half of the land lost in the western U.S. to development was for housing and commercial buildings, with energy development accounting for the next highest percentage.

The report has been represented to policy makers and published widely, gaining attention regionally and nationally. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell mentioned the report in a speech last April at the National Geographic Society about the need for a course correction in the use of public lands, especially since recreational use of public natural lands has an enormous economic impact — such as on places like Tahoe/Truckee.

Disappearing West states, “In a region whose way of life is rooted in the outdoors, the rapid loss of natural areas is disrupting and displacing individuals and communities. The disappearance of the West’s natural areas, of course, affects not only its people, but entire ecosystems.”

“The reaction to the study has been overwhelmingly positive,” Dickson said. “The feedback has been reported all around the world, and it has certainly elevated awareness about the rate of natural loss and put people in a new position to recognize ongoing land loss. Our task was to develop the data to arbitrate the discussion.”

Deflecting Yet Another Local Regulatory Agency  

Collaboration between local agencies counters new regulation of the Martis Valley aquifer

An enormous hodgepodge of governmental agencies and regulations exist at the state and local level to manage resources in California. One of the most recent — and potentially far-reaching — is the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The act was initiated in response to the critical loss of groundwater in the Central Valley, but it impacts water management across the entire state, including local areas like Martis Valley.  

The act applies to groundwater basins that are designated by the California Department of Water Resources (DPR) as medium and high priority, which triggers a requirement that local governments create a Groundwater Sustainability Agency and a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP). However, there is an exception: Show that the basin has plenty of groundwater to meet anticipated future needs.

“The Martis Valley groundwater basin was designated as a medium priority basin,” said Steven Poncelet, public information and conservation manager for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District (TDPUD). “Many people think it shouldn’t apply to us. It’s a whole new form of governance, we already have a Truckee River [Operating] Agreement, and we are a pretty regulated basin already. A ground water sustainability plan would be a very expensive compliance project.” An estimate put the cost of producing the plan at more than $1 million, to say nothing of the regulatory agency — all of which would be an unfunded state mandate.

The law requires approval of an alternative compliance request by June 2017 in order to avoid having to produce the full groundwater plan. The prime consideration is a report from a licensed hydrologist showing a sustainable yield in the basin for the past 10 years, a request local agencies affirm they can easily show for the Martis Valley aquifer. “We have a report showing we have been sustainable for over 25 years, with an enormous amount of science to back that up,” Poncelet said.

In order to meet the SGMA requirements, six government agencies (see sidebar) collaborated to unanimously come to an agreement, and in just six months create the report and the alternative compliance application. All agency boards have passed a so-called memorandum of understanding, Poncelet said.

GEI Consultants, Inc. (GEI) prepared the hydrology report. They found that the average annual groundwater extraction in the basin since 1990 has been approximately 7,000 acre feet per year (AFY); which is significantly less than one-third of the estimated sustainable yield of 22,000 AFY for the basin. Future groundwater demands are still estimated to be lower at approximately 13,000 AFY if the area fully builds out by 2035, ensuring water supply for decades to come.

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July 12, 2018