Olsson Assists California's Drought Response

California closed out its three driest years on record at the end of 2022. But as many Californians coped with flooding to begin 2023, last year may have felt like a distant memory.

A series of atmospheric river storms unleashed floods and mudslides while at the same time easing drought conditions across much of the state. In an era marked by weather extremes, however, drought is certain to worsen again.

When it does, the state will have a new and innovative data platform to better respond to depleted wells and water shortages thanks to a multi-year collaborative effort.

The Groundwater Accounting Platform, co-developed by Olsson, is an easy-to-use digital tool that helps track the supply of an underground resource relied on by more than 8 out of 10 Californians for some portion of their water. The California Department of Water Resources (CDWR) recently announced funding and technical support to make the Platform more widely available to the state’s water managers and agricultural producers.

A partnership that includes the California Water Data Consortium, the State Water Resources Control Board, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Environmental Science Associates (ESA) and Olsson has been working on the Platform for several years. It is intended to help California’s more than 260 local groundwater sustainability agencies better address drought impacts and long-term conservation as required under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

“With SGMA came a great need for more monitoring, planning and actions to achieve groundwater sustainability, and California’s shift to a hotter, drier future has accelerated that need,” Paul Gosselin, deputy director of DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Office, said in a department news release. “This groundwater accounting platform will provide local agencies with an easily accessible tool to track groundwater use and availability and make informed management decisions to help mitigate the impacts of drought in the near-term and transition to groundwater sustainability over the long-term.”

The Platform features Olsson’s cloud-based software called GET, which stands for Groundwater Evaluation Toolbox. Resource professionals use GET to run unlimited groundwater modeling scenarios in near real-time so they can make better-targeted management decisions for well drilling and groundwater recharge. Traditional groundwater modeling is costly and takes months to produce results. GET can produce modeling results within a few hours.

GET dramatically improves the ability of water managers and agricultural producers to understand whether an action will sustain or diminish the aquifers they rely on, according to Jim Schneider, leader of Olsson’s Water Resources team in Nebraska.

“We developed GET so groundwater management professionals could be more nimble and more effective in their daily work,” Schneider said. “But as groundwater scientists, the higher motivation for us was to create a tool that could help address the sustainability challenges facing our water resources. We are proud to be part of the team working to address the water crisis in the American West.”

The stakes are high in California, which produces two-thirds of America’s fruits and nuts and one-third of its vegetables. But nearly 1,500 active wells went dry in 2022, according to California Water Watch, while an estimated 500,000 acres of agricultural land was removed from production because of insufficient irrigation water.

Even with significantly higher-than-average snowpack and recent flooding, most of the state remained in drought conditions in early January, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. “Drought is now expected to ease noticeably” but remain in the western states most heavily impacted in recent years, based on the seasonal outlook from the National Weather Service.

The Groundwater Accounting Platform was piloted by EDF and the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District in California. Olsson and Sitka Technology Group provided technical assistance and consulting for the pilot project. Sitka has since been acquired by ESA.

“This is truly a collaborative effort, bringing together water agencies to help address the impacts of drought -- such as water supply shortages and dry wells,” Tara Moran, president and CEO of the California Water Data Consortium, said in the news release. “With our new climate reality, innovative tools and strong partnerships are needed to forge solutions for a new and unprecedented water management future.”

Jim Schneider
Technical Expert
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