Agencies race to fix plans to sustain groundwater levels

Seeking to prevent the California State Water Resources Control Board from stepping in to regulate groundwater in critically overdrafted subbasins, local agencies are working to correct deficiencies in their plans to protect groundwater.

With groundwater sustainability agencies formed and groundwater sustainability plans evaluated, the state water board has moved to implement the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA.

Last month, the Tulare Lake Subbasin became the first subbasin in the state to be placed under probation. Other critically overdrafted subbasins with inadequate plans include the Tule, Kaweah, Kern County, Delta-Mendota and Chowchilla subbasins. Local agencies overseeing the subbasins are scheduled to appear before the state water board later this year and early next year to learn if the board will place them under probationary status.

With dairies located in affected subbasins, Geoffrey Vanden Heuvel, director of regulatory and economic affairs for the Milk Producers Council, said he has been following the SGMA process.

“The first lesson that subbasins ought to learn is you have no chance if you don’t submit an updated groundwater sustainability plan,” Vanden Heuvel said. He added, “All of the problems in the subbasins are fixable, but people have to be motivated to solve them.”

The Tulare Lake Subbasin, which covers Kings County, was placed under probation April 16 after the state water board agreed with staff that the plan submitted by agencies failed to show how actions would address critical overdraft by limiting groundwater pumping, land subsidence and impacts to drinking water.

Under probation, groundwater extractors in the Tulare Lake subbasin face annual fees of $300 per well and $20 per acre-foot pumped, plus a late reporting fee of 25%. SGMA also requires well owners to file annual groundwater extraction reports.

Last week, Kings County landowners in the Tulare Lake Subbasin rejected groundwater fees proposed by the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

The GSA, overseen by the city of Hanford, Kings County and the Kings County Water District, proposed a $25 per acre assessment and a $95 per acre-foot groundwater extraction fee to cover administration costs and projects.

Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference said members are relieved the local fees were defeated and called the $11.5 million annual budget identified in the Mid-Kings River GSA’s fee study “excessively high.”

Recognizing the defeat is only temporary, Ference said, “The Mid-Kings River GSA has to bring this back before the voters, but at a different rate.”

Citing a lack of stakeholder input, Ference said the Kings County Farm Bureau is asking the Mid-Kings River GSA to create an advisory committee that includes farmers and appoint a member of that committee to the GSA’s board of directors. “We’re pushing for a more transparent process,” Ference said.

Meanwhile, water board staff recommended probation for the Tule Subbasin in neighboring Tulare County due to inadequate plans by local agencies. The state water board is set to consider probation for the subbasin Sept. 17.

Eric Limas manages the Lower Tulare River GSA and Pixley GSA and is general manager for the respective irrigation districts. He said watching the water board’s probationary hearing for the neighboring Tulare Lake Subbasin “provided even more clarity and reinforcement in what we need to do.”

“Even before that hearing, our focus was to get a revised GSP in front of the state water board before our September hearing,” Limas said. “If we can resolve a few remaining items, we may get a revised GSP in front of them by the end of June.”

Limas said the local agencies in the Tule Subbasin are working to address groundwater levels, subsidence, protecting domestic wells and groundwater quality.

“We do a lot of work in the Tulare Subbasin with other entities related to groundwater quality, and I think we can show that,” he said. “The toughest one is managing subsidence. Everybody has a little bit of different idea on how to attack that, so that’s what we’re working through.”

The staff report on the Tule Subbasin said land subsidence due to overpumping has caused reduced flow capacity by more than 60% in the Friant-Kern Canal. In the meantime, the Friant Water Authority has sued the Eastern Tule GSA, alleging the agency has not done enough to decrease overpumping to reduce damage to the canal and that it has not complied with a settlement agreement to pay for ongoing repairs due to damage.

“If we could all work together and figure out a way to solve this, that’s much better for us to get an approved GSP,” Limas said of the lawsuit.

In addition, Limas said a cross-boundary issue of subsidence related to a pre-SGMA agreement that Pixley and Tule irrigation districts have with Angiola Water District—located in Kings County in the Tulare Lake Subbasin—is also affecting the process.

“State board staff has highlighted this cross-boundary (subsidence) issue where pumping is happening in one area and the use is happening in another area,” Limas said. “Part of the solution needs to be them coming to the table and helping us mitigate for subsidence and groundwater elevations.”

Facing possible probation in November, is the Kaweah Subbasin, which includes the Mid-Kaweah, the East Kaweah and Greater Kaweah GSAs. Tulare Irrigation District general manager Aaron Fukuda, who is interim general manager of the Mid-Kaweah GSA, said the subbasin is a couple weeks away from having its revised draft GSP done.

“While we have deficiencies in our plan, our sustainability actions outweigh any deficiencies we may have in our plan,” Fukuda said. “We have taken just over a year, and we’re really close to having the two deficiencies addressed that the state Department of Water Resources identified, which is our sustainable management criteria for groundwater and subsidence.”

At this point in the SGMA process, Fukuda said, “We are at a pretty critical juncture for agriculture.” He said farmers are struggling with high input costs, inflation, lower property values, flat commodity prices and uncertain water supplies.

“The atmosphere is there’s nothing going the farmer’s way right now, and SGMA is probably at the root of a lot of it,” he said. “If you sit down with the farmers, these folks have a lot on the line. It’s not just money to them. It’s their families, their relationships and their communities.”

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