San Bernardino Basin Groundwater Council: Achieving Record Recharge through Collaboration

By Kristin Withrow posted 02-05-2021 02:54 PM


By Betsy Miller, Land Resources Manager/Assistant General Manager

Last year was a record-breaker for water recharge in Southern California’s parched San Bernardino Valley.  More than 70,000 acre-feet of snowmelt, rainfall, imported and recycled water was captured and percolated into the region’s once-bountiful, but now depleted, aquifers. At 22.8 billion gallons, it represents enough water to serve 210,000 local households for one year. But the water won’t be used up any time soon. It is part of a comprehensive, collaborative plan to bring the aquifers back to historic levels.


“The last time our region recharged that much groundwater was in 1987, coming down from a period of successive wet winters,” said San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District General Manager Daniel Cozad. “Prior to that spell, we hadn’t seen this much water recharged since the late 1940s.”


What led to such a dramatic shift in recharge capabilities? Cozad credits these staggering recharge totals to the newly formed San Bernardino Basin Groundwater Council: an innovative, voluntary partnership that has area water districts and cities working hand-in-hand to establish a resilient source of water to serve the growing region.  Working together, they are restoring the basin, enhancing local water storage, and providing an abundant source of water for future dry times.

The Groundwater Council, formed in 2018 under the support of the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District, represents a 21st Century model that can be replicated by other regions throughout California. It’s for that reason that it was honored with the California Special Districts Association 2020 Innovative Project of the Year award.


An arduous task at the start

It’s an exceptional project, given the work involved in bringing so many entities to the table.  There were countless meetings, difficult questions asked and answered. In the end, it came to the recognition that the future of the region depended on everyone doing the right thing.


Member agencies include the SBVWCD, San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District (Valley District); East Valley Water District; the cities of Colton, Redlands, Loma Linda and Rialto; San Bernardino Municipal Water Department; Fontana Water Company; Western Municipal Water District; Yucaipa Valley Water District; and West Valley Water District. This is a group of entities that for 100 years had grappled over water rights. But its members also share a long history of pitching in to help each other during extreme periods of drought.


“Years ago, the tendency among water agencies was to fight over who owned what,” said Valley District General Manager Heather Dyer. “But there is a new wave of collaboration driving many successful projects that are changing the future of water for this region in very positive ways.”


Voluntary collaboration

Membership on the council is by choice. That means the agencies involved participate out of concern for a common cause. They bring an unprecedented level of dedication to regional groundwater management that is unmatched when compared to other efforts now mandated by the state.


  • The Groundwater Council promotes a regional approach to groundwater management that is more effective for meeting current and future water needs.
  • Council agencies contribute their fair share of funding, water, and operations and maintenance assistance to ensure a sustainable water source.
  • Participating agencies benefit from a sustainable water source at very affordable pricing, and those savings are passed on to residents.


A growing need for collaboration

For more than a century, the San Bernardino Valley basins were teeming with water that poured richly from snow-capped peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains. But pumping in the basin began to exceed safe yield in the 1980s, and the situation of recurring years of overdrafts grew worse with population growth and successive years of drought.


“Cooperation is needed to get through our region’s persistent drought conditions,” explained Council Vice Chair Jarb Thaipejr, City Manager and Public Works Director for the City of Loma Linda “Working together, we can optimize the storage of local and imported water supplies that build resilience for the entire region – and that benefits everyone.”


Because imported water is needed to restore the basin, this collaborative model ensures that every agency does its part to assist in that effort – contributing water, money, or both to develop a sustainable model of groundwater management. While other parts of the state many be facing mandates to work together under the Groundwater Sustainability Act of 2014, local Groundwater Council members have joined forces voluntarily – putting more than a century of experience into best practices for determining how to fairly distribute a region’s most precious natural resource.


How it works

How much each entity contributes to the council is determined according to use, historic rights, conservation, water recycling and other factors developed over a year of open exchanges of concerns and information. Those that use more water, pay more. It’s a method that ensures capacity for each entity but does not penalize those who conserve.


The primary benefits of the Groundwater Council are:

  • It significantly improves the region’s water supply at a significantly lower price.
  • It maximizes high groundwater quality in the basin with additional low-salinity local and imported water.
  • With so many local agencies contributing their share to the basin, the amount of imported water being recharged each year is now at record highs.
  • It helps mitigate water shortages during drought periods.


A model for cooperation

The San Bernardino Basin Groundwater Council demonstrates what can be done when agencies large and small work together to help resolve California’s growing water challenges.  It reflects a practical and cooperative spirit of hard work and honest negotiations that help resolve the region’s larger issues of ensuring safe drinking water gets to all communities and finding solutions to long-term drought.


“Cooperation is critical to prepare for our region’s drought cycles, which are exacerbated by the climatic changes we are seeing,” said Cozad. “Our water basins serve the entire region. It makes sense that we all work together to ensure safe and reliable water sources for our population now and long into the future.  I am most thankful for the wisdom and leadership shown by the boards and councils of the Groundwater Council members.”