Most people probably don't think about California and India being very similar. Besides the palm trees and yogis, of course.
So what do the Western land of beaches, redwood forests, and the Golden Gate Bridge have in common with the land in the Far East of Bollywood, curries, and 1.2 billion people? The way they use Groundwater.
Groundwater is an important water resource for both India and California, due to the large agricultural industry in both regions. In particular, the NW states of India (Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat) are considered to be the "Bread Basket of India", whereas the plethora of diverse crops in California has earned it the nickname of "America's Fruit Basket". Agriculture is by far the largest consumer of fresh water in both regions, which comprises ~70% of fresh water consumption. Half of the agricultural land in India depends entirely on groundwater due to its dependence on monsoon climate, which results in a distinct wet and dry season. As a result, NW India has recently experienced an annual loss in groundwater storage of 17.7 cubic kilometers  – That’s about the same volume of water in the Great Salt Lake in Utah lost every year!
India is currently the world's largest consumer of groundwater, consuming more than double the amount of groundwater than in the USA. In comparison to India, annual groundwater storage losses estimated in California's Central Valley seem less extreme, with only 6-8 cubic kilometers. Only, this is the same amount of water that is stored in Lake Shasta, California’s largest surface water reservoir and the same amount required for 9.1 to 12.1 million families (4 persons) in California every year.
How can so much groundwater be lost every year? Perhaps, it’s because we can’t see groundwater very well. Surely, if the same order of magnitude of surface water were being lost every year people more people would be more concerned.
In both India and California, groundwater rights are based on property rights. This means that if you own land, you have the right to use the groundwater that flows under it. In the case of California, this falls under the reasonable use doctrine of California water law:
“water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable, and that the waste or unreasonable use or unusable method of use of water be prevented, and that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised with a view to the reasonable and beneficial use thereof in the interest of the people and for the public welfare”.
But unlike surface water, which is highly regulated under riparian and appropriative (first-in-time, first-in-right) water rights in California – Groundwater is a free for all.
California and Texas are currently the only two states in the US that don’t regulate groundwater – just like India. This means that groundwater, two-thirds of California’s water supply, is currently not being measured, monitored or managed.
In the case of India, the Central Groundwater Board in India, estimates groundwater stress for each district (the US equivalent to a county) using a ratio of annual groundwater withdrawal to annual groundwater replenishment . India’s efforts to monitor groundwater have elucidated the severity of groundwater depletion in NW India, but failed to monitor and regulate groundwater use at the well level.
I had a first hand look at the severity of this groundwater depletion in Gujarat back in 2010, where farmer wells as deep as 800 ft had run dry. Farmers told me that the reason why their wells had gone dry is because the monsoon rains were dwindling over the years. There is certainly truth to this. Climate change is attenuating monsoon rains in the region. In the backdrop, it was hard not to notice the cotton crops and not think that perhaps cotton, one of the world’s thirstiest crops, was also playing a role. Groundwater depletion in Gujarat is so severe that people, mainly the poor, have become in a sense environmental refugees. Unable to afford the financial burden of drilling a deeper well, many poor farmers revert to rain-fed agriculture and seek labor work. You’ll find them either doing farm work on the land of a richer farmer or doing migrant labor in nearby cities. In response, the Indian government has placed a larger emphasis on crop diversification and a shift towards less water intensive crops, such as pulses and oilseeds in NW India. In addition they are looking east towards the Himalayas-bordering state of Bihar, which receives more rainfall and surface water resources to cultivate water hungry food grains, such as wheat, rice, and maize.
In light of the recent California drought, it’s common to hear about the increasing woes of farmers. As if farming wasn’t hard and risky enough! Farmers growing perennial crops have been particularly hard hit, since they are unable to fallow their fields and have to procure enough water to keep their trees alive. Desperate to keep their trees alive, some farmers have been willing to pay up to $1200 per AF of water. The California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 20145 proposed by Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have proposed $100 million for the Department of the Interior to rapidly increase supplies and provide $25 million in emergency assistance to low-income migrant and seasonal farmworkers who are directly harmed by the drought.
As our government react to the implications that the drought is playing on our agricultural economy, it’s important to make some time to reflect on the root causes of the drought.
The more obvious explanations are often attributed to the addition water needs in the Bay-Delta system to support the Delta Smelt and salmon on the San Joaquin, but also, similarly to India, climate change is also playing a role in the amount of rain that is falling to fill our rivers and reservoirs. However, more subtly, it’s what we are using our water for.
Recall, that in the words of the California Constitution: “water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable”, so this begs the question… Are almond trees the best use for the water they demand? Are all 1.78 million dairy cattle beneficial to the fullest extent? Is it worth California tax dollars to support the production of alfalfa, which is ultimately being shipped off to China? These are hard questions, maybe even philosophical, but important.
 Rodell, M., Velicogna, I. & Famiglietti, J. S. Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature 460, 999–1002 (2009).
 Shah, T. Groundwater and human development: challenges and opportunities in livelihoods and environment. Water Science & Technology 51, 27–37 (2005).
 Scanlon, B. R. & Faunt, C. C. Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US High Plains and Central Valley. in (2012). doi:10.1073/pnas.1200311109/-/DCSupplemental/pnas.201200311SI.pdf
 Ministry of Water Resources, G. O. I. Report of the Ground Water Resource Estimation Committee. Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India (2009). at <http://cgwb.gov.in/documents/gec97.pdf>
 http://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=e7668832-d0be-4329-a30f-d1e5e47863aa, accessed 11 April 2014.