The Department of Water Resources rejects six groundwater sustainability plans, local groundwater agencies look to repair deficits before the state interferes
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Still reeling from their second round of rejections on their groundwater sustainability plans, local water agencies are left in the deep end on what happens next.
On March 2, the Department of Water Resources announced their decisions on groundwater sustainability plans (GSP) for 12 critically overdrafted groundwater basins in the Central Valley. The 12 GSPs were previously rejected during last year’s evaluation and this year six were approved while the other six were rejected for a variety of reasons.
These plans are intended to provide a map for how groundwater basins will reach long-term sustainability while also putting a focus on short term fixes. While many of those who received their second rejection for submitted plans find themselves defeated, there are some who celebrate the rejections as a win.
“We’re really glad that DWR and the State Water Board are working together and listening to these communities that have been fighting for safe and affordable drinking water for decades now,” Tien Tran, policy advocate for the Community Water Center, said. “And we’re going to continue to consult with state agencies and also local agencies to make sure that they prioritize drinking water and include it in their plans moving forward.”
Tulare County is primarily covered by two groundwater subbasins fed by the Kaweah and Tule rivers. The Kaweah Subbasin is made up of three GSAs: The Mid-Kaweah, comprised of the cities of Visalia and Tulare and the Tulare Irrigation District; the Greater Kaweah, comprised of County of Tulare as well as the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District, the Lakeside Irrigation Water District and the Kings County and St. Johns water districts; and the East Kaweah, comprised of the County of Tulare, City of Lindsay, and the Lindmore, Lindsay-Strathmore, Exeter, Ivanhoe and Stone Corral irrigation districts.
The Tule Subbasin is made up of six GSAs: Alpaugh, comprised of the Alpaugh Irrigation District, Alpaugh Community Services District and Atwell Island Water District; Delano-Earlimart, comprised of the Earlimart Public Utility District and Richgrove Community Services District; and the single-agency GSAs of Eastern Tule Irrigation District, Lower Tule River Irrigation District, Pixley Irrigation District, and Tri-County Water Authority.
After previously being rejected, the GSAs had 180 days to correct the deficiencies, revise and resubmit their plans to DWR for re-evaluation, consistent with the regulations. Rogelio Caudillo, the general manager of the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency said it was like having six months to do two years worth of work.
According to DWR, they were deemed inadequate and will now be transitioning from DWR’s oversight to the State Water Board for state intervention under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The six rejections include Chowchilla Subbasin in Madera and Merced counties, Delta-Mendota Subbasin in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Madera, and San Benito counties, Kaweah Subbasin in Tulare and Kings counties, Tule Subbasin in Tulare County, Tulare Lake Subbasin in Kings County, Kern Subbasin in Kern County.
According to a press release from DWR, the basins deemed inadequate did not appropriately address deficiencies in how GSAs structured their sustainable management criteria. The management criteria provide an operating range for how groundwater levels prevent undesirable effects such as overdraft, land subsidence and groundwater levels that may impact drinking water wells, within 20 years. These GSAs did not analyze and justify continued groundwater level declines and land subsidence. Further, the GSPs lacked a clear understanding of how the management criteria may cause undesired effects on groundwater users in the basins or critical infrastructure.
“This action will trigger a process before the water board that will afford local agencies additional opportunities to address identified problems, regain control of their basins and, hopefully, avoid formal probationary status or the imposition of eventual state interim plans,” California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said in a press release.
The Tulare Irrigation District is a part of the Mid-Kaweah GSA, and one of the GSPs that was rejected. The district’s general manager Aaron Fukuda said he and those he had to deliver the news to were saddened by DWR’s response as they have worked too hard to receive another rejection.
“I talked to a lot of key members of my board and advisory committee and I sensed a deep, deep disappointment, not anger, but we’re so vested in this process for so many years,” Fukuda said. “We didn’t just have a couple of meetings and get this thing done.”
Fukuda said that as a district, they tried very hard to come up with a plan that would reach sustainability, which is their ultimate goal. However, he said when dealing with many larger entities, like the state, it can be hard to know what they are looking for in the approval process as there are vague guidelines to follow according to Fukuda. He said they were told to solve the problem locally, but when they had bigger picture questions there was not an answer.
“We’re focused on [solving the problem of sustainability] as one track. Now we’re focused on the GSP as our kind of benchmark and test.” Fukuda said. “[The GSP] was a test that had no lesson plan behind it.”
Fukuda said the specific reasons for rejection are technical. According to Fukuda in board terms, their GSP did not have enough information for the board. They failed to explain some of the minute details on establishing minimum thresholds and how they planned to work with other subbasins. Fukuda said despite having a domestic well mitigation plan, they failed to lay it out clearly enough for the DWR.
A similar reasoning was given to Caudillo and the Eastern Tule GSA. They will now need to give more detailed responses as to how they determined land subsidence in the Friant Kern Canal. He said it was his understanding they need a more quantitative analysis of not only the subsidence but their well mitigation plan, too.
Despite the rejections, Fukuda did praise how much the Valley has come together to solve the water crisis in California. He explained it is not easy for farmers to give up water, but they have had to in order to make some of their plans work.
Johansson said in the California Farm Bureau statement, that they will work with state and local agencies to find “workable solutions to sustain healthy aquifers.” The California Farm Bureau works to protect family farms and ranches on behalf of nearly 29,000 members statewide and as part of a nationwide network of 5.3 million Farm Bureau members.
“Our groundwater supplies are critical for California farmers, including vegetable, fruit, nut and dairy producers who account for much of America’s food supply. It is important that California carefully consider solutions that protect both our aquifers and our food production,” Johansson said.
What happens next?
Tran’s celebration of the rejected plans is because there is a need for a heavier focus on groundwater levels for domestic wells. The lack of layout for domestic wells was in fact included in DWRs response to the Eastern Tule and Kaweah Subbasin’s as one of the reasons for rejection. The next step for both Eastern Tule and Kaweah GSAs is to meet with officials from the state and hopefully avoid entering into a probationary period. Tran said the probation period is a new addition this year so the next steps are still murky for those who were rejected.
Fukuda said they are meeting with the State Water Resources Control Board next week to determine what the next move is. Caudillo said they will be doing something similar as well. In the past, it was left up to the individual GSAs to address DWR’s concerns and resubmit. Depending on how far off the GSP is could result in probationary periods and ultimate state takeover of the different agencies.
“We already have a meeting set up with them next week to make sure we’re all on the same page as what the process is going to be,” Fukuda said. “We’ve been told by state board staff that they’re looking for a collaborative process.”
Each basin is unique and will be evaluated individually by the State Water Board. According to a release from DWR, state intervention and oversight is a critical step in making sure these basins succeed in achieving sustainable groundwater conditions. The ultimate goal is to have all basins return to local management with a clear path on how to achieve sustainability within 20 years of their original plan submission.
According to DWR, they will transmit each basin deemed inadequate to the State Water Board, which may designate the basin to be probationary after providing public notice and then holding a public hearing. Any probationary designation will identify the deficiencies that led to intervention and potential actions to remedy the deficiencies. At the hearing, interested parties will have the opportunity to provide comments and technical information to the State Water Board regarding the deficiencies that were identified in the plans.
The remaining six groundwater sustainability plans were recommended for approval by DWR with recommended corrective actions for the basins to remain in an approved status. Those six include the Cuyama Basin in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Kern counties, Paso Robles Subbasin in San Luis Obispo County, Eastern San Joaquin Subbasin in San Joaquin County, Merced Subbasin in Merced County, Westside Subbasin in Fresno and Kings counties and Kings Subbasin in Fresno County.
Adopted in 2014, SGMA requires local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) in medium- and high-priority groundwater basins to develop and implement GSPs. There are 21 critically overdrafted basins included in that area.
GSAs are required to begin implementing their plans as soon as they are adopted locally, and these activities will continue even if basins are under state intervention. These plans will help local agencies address conditions that negatively impact groundwater within 20 years such as groundwater overdraft, degraded groundwater quality, land subsidence and impacts to drinking water well users.
“Since the onset of SGMA, local agencies have stepped up with dedication and progress in meeting critical milestones,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a release. “Protecting domestic wells, minimizing land subsidence and protecting groundwater resources are all State priorities. Implementation of these plans, which will require difficult adjustments as we go, will ultimately provide a safe and reliable groundwater supply for communities for generations to come.”
The basins with plans recommended for approval will continue to work with DWR and report on their progress in implementing their plans and completing corrective actions. DWR supports local agencies by providing planning, technical and financial assistance to help GSAs and local communities in this long-term effort to sustainably manage their groundwater basins.
The critically overdrafted basins each received $7.6 million in Sustainable Groundwater Management grant funding to help them implement their plans. Complementary funding programs like DWR’s LandFlex program, state drought assistance programs, and the California Department of Conservation’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing program are helping the most critically overdrafted areas of the state reduce their dependence on groundwater and fast-track progress in reaching local sustainability goals.
Out of a total of 94 groundwater basins required to submit plans under SGMA, DWR has provided determinations for 24 basins and is currently reviewing an additional 61 plans from 59 of the state’s high- and medium- priority basins that were submitted to DWR in January 2022. DWR anticipates issuing determinations for the remaining basins throughout 2023.