New well regulations pose concerns for local water agencies

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s newest executive order leaves water agencies confused on how to move forward on new, existing wells within GSAs

SACRAMENTO – Water agency officials are concerned with new well regulations enacted by Governor Gavin Newsom’s fifth drought-related executive order, which was released on March 28 in response to the state’s ongoing water crisis.

Effective immediately, Executive Order N-7-22 includes a proclamation-style account of drought conditions that have resulted from climate change followed by a list of action items. 

An area of particular concern is a requirement that local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) determine that the construction of new wells or alteration of existing wells is consistent with the agency’s groundwater sustainability plans. It also requires GSAs to determine that proposed wells are not likely to interfere with existing nearby wells or cause subsidence that would adversely impact nearby infrastructure. The item does not apply to public water systems or individual domestic wells that pump less than two acre-feet of water per year.

The problem this poses for the GSAs in Tulare County, according to the county’s Water Resources Program Director Denise England, is that the groundwater sustainability plans developed by local agencies have yet to be approved by the state’s Department of Water Resources. The plans were adopted and then submitted in 2020, and in January 2022 the department sent back letters saying they were incomplete and needed additional information.

“The GSAs are still working their way through those comments and revisions to satisfy the Department of Water Resources and bring their plans up to a level where they can be approved,” England said. 

Newsom’s order, then, complicates things. 

“It’s like if you submitted a report to your professor and you got an incomplete, but then the professor said, now the rest of the semester, you’re going to base all of your work on that report,” England said. 

Tulare County’s valley floor is served by three GSAs, each representing a different high-priority subbasin: Greater Kaweah, Mid-Kaweah and Eastern Kaweah. Each GSA works to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a three-bill legislative package enacted in 2014 that sets forth long-term plans for sustainable groundwater use and management. 

“The GSAs were gaining some momentum to implement SGMA, and I think something like this really kind of jammed up that progress,” England said. “It’s also going to put landowners potentially at odds with their GSA, if they view the GSA as a roadblock to accessing the water that they need.”

Aaron Fukuda, general manager of both the Tulare Irrigation District and the Mid-Kaweah GSA, said he’s already received several phone calls from landowners who are confused about specifics of the order. 

“There’s a lot of mass confusion,” Fukuda said. “I would say that in the midst of all the things we’re dealing with, this is yet another thing that has consumed 20 hours of my time already.” 

Fukuda said he and his colleagues are still unsure of what the intent behind the requirement is, as it seems to target wells used for agriculture. 

“Our goal is to keep agriculture as a viable economic generator in the community, and the core of that operation is a well. So we’ve got to keep that available to them,” Fukuda said. 

Currently, Fukuda said, there is no plan in place for how the well requirement of the executive order will be implemented. To his understanding, water agencies in counties up and down the state are grappling with the same confusion. 

“[The requirement] in general seems to point the finger at the groundwater wells for causing the drought,” England said. “The wells themselves are not causing the drought, and we have pumping restrictions in place that deal with the extraction of groundwater. So having this be so restrictive and putting so much liability and onus on both the GSAs and the county isn’t really helpful. I don’t know how realistic this is going to be in actually solving the drought problem.” 

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