Groundwater Rise: An International Problem that California Must Solve

The devastating effects of climate change are numerous, diverse, and often disrupt our best-laid plans.  One novel issue which is only now starting to get attention is groundwater rise.  When we think of sea-level rise, we often think about the ocean encroaching our coastal shores and flooding our beaches – but we forget about the waterways in the ground beneath our feet. Groundwater fills the holes and fractures in underground materials like water fills a sponge. It can be deep in the earth, or shallow and near the surface.  Along coasts, underground saltwater floats directly beneath the freshwater.  When underground saltwater rises with the rising seas, it is expected to push the groundwater up and sometimes even out of the ground.  In addition to flooding basements and impacting plumbing, this rise can also crumble roads and create extended earthquake liquefaction zones. In 2012, Hawaiian scientists discovered the earliest first-hand evidence of the phenomena already in action.

Global climate change is expected to cause at least an average one foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century, with a three foot rise in California, but it may end up being much more. A survey in one Bay Area city found local groundwater to currently be an average of six feet below the surface near the Bay edge, and often as close to the surface as only one to two feet below. Even a small rise in sea levels can have devastating effects with already shallow groundwater. The effects become even more problematic if the groundwater is contaminated by chemicals.  For those who live or work near the shore and in polluted areas, sleeping monsters are about to awake.

Potential Impacts of Sea-Level Rise (SLR) and Flooding in the San Francisco Bay Area: https://lao.ca.gov/reports/2019/4121/Fig2.png
California LAO: Preparing for Rising Seas: How the State Can Help Support Local Coastal Adaptation Efforts

When chemicals pollute soil and groundwater, the contamination may be mitigated by procedures to contain the toxins and reduce the risk to humans nearby. However, these containment procedures generally factor in the current depth of the groundwater at that time and there is usually no follow up later to assess if the mitigation is still sufficient (such as if physical circumstances changed in the area).  More than 945 EPA Superfund sites are at risk due to global climate change generally, and 330 EPA Superfund sites were found to be at risk of flooding due to only five feet of sea level rise. The California LAO recently stated, “floodwaters could penetrate both surface-level and underground tanks and force out toxic liquids, or liberate waste from pits or piles.” Though, this analysis does not even consider vapor intrusion risks as the groundwater rises closer the surface.

The issue of contaminated groundwater rise has been overlooked by city planners and decision-makers for decades, but we cannot wait any longer.  Many coastal cities across the world will be impacted by this issue.  California has an impressive history of environmental innovation and pioneering novel solutions to address global climate change. This issue should be no different — not only because the world needs a solution, but because this issue will be disastrous for Californians if we cannot get ahead of it at home.

– Ashley Gjovik

Ashley is an advocate for human rights, including healthy environments. She is currently a law student at Santa Clara University studying international public interest law and policy. 

Stratospheric Ozone Protection & Mario Molina

By coincidence, we just discussed protection of the stratospheric ozone layers in my environmental law course this week when I saw the obituary for Dr. Mario Molina yesterday, a Mexican-American scientist. His research on damage to the ozone layer by CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals was awarded a Nobel Prize and eventually prompted the negotiation of the Ozone Treaties (Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol). These agreements have become among the most successful international environmental treaties to date and continue to serve as models for modern environmental treaty-making. In his later days, he used his role to speak out on these broader environmental policy issues, including in the context of climate change. What a loss.

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/10/nobel-laureate-who-helped-save-ozone-layer-dies

ABA SEER (Environment Section) 2020-2021 Law Student Writing Competitions

The ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources has some terrific writing prize opportunities for law students, well designed for submission of course papers. Many of them have a 20 page length limit on submissions. All of them have a submission deadline of May 31, 2021, with a $1000 cash prize for the top paper. For additional requirements and details, see the links.

California Lawyers Assocation, Environmental Law Section – Environmental Law Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship Program (Deadline: October 26, 2020)

A terrific fellowship opportunity for qualified law students. One of my students was a recipient recently and had a great experience. The program provides a summer $6500 stipend and helps place students in a valuable environmental law summer internship.

To see the fellowship criteria, see the program description on the CLA Environmental Law Section’s website at https://calawyers.org/section/environmental-law/fellowships/.

[The program’s description of fellowship qualification criteria are quite expansive.]

Most Entertaining Law Professor

So it turns out that I have been voted “Most Entertaining Law Professor of the Year” by the Santa Clara law students (with the award delivered by the Student Bar Association Presidents and duly inscribed on a vinyl record).  It made my day!  However, I also have to confess that I am a little bewildered — my family usually accuses me of being too serious and “a stick in the mud.”  But it still made my day (and probably my month).  (I think my property law students were happy for me, too!  So kind of them.)

Winter Break Advice for 1L Law Students

Here’s some great advice that one of my former students, now practicing with a large corporate law firm, had for my current 1L law students.  I am sure they will need a break from an intense first semester of law school.  Unfortunately, for the sake of their future legal career, there is not much rest to be had.  The early (as well as diligent and assertive) bird still gets the worm.

SCU Law Interships_Page_1SCU Law Interships_Page_2