Mid-Kaweah GSA navigates state regulatory rapids

Tulare Irrigation District is planning to have 1,300 acres of recharge basins as part of the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

Amid regulatory hurdles, Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency strives for sustainable water solutions

VISALIA – The Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency reported to the Visalia City Council on March 18 that progress is being made on enacting a plan for future water solutions after years of regulatory setbacks.

The initial plan was submitted to the California Water Resources Board in 2020, but the plan was deemed incomplete and was sent back to the MKGSA with orders to revise within 180 days. A revised plan was then submitted in 2022, but that plan also failed.

The agency was formed following the passage of a state law known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which aims to create a statewide plan to preserve groundwater levels. The law sets a target of reaching sustainability by year 2040. More than 250 different agencies were established to study and prepare plans for about 140 groundwater basins in the state, with most of them clustered in the Central Valley. Mid-Kaweah GSA is a partnership between the Visalia, Tulare and the Tulare Irrigation District.

Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District and a member of the MKGSA, said the agency is on track to complete an updated plan by June in an effort to stave off regulatory penalties by the State Water Control Board. The agency will go before a hearing in November to determine if they will retain control of the plan, Fukuda said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette.

“There is a lot of social and economic risk that we have with this law,” Fukuda said. “That’s not inherently incorporated into the plan. There is no analysis about what the social and economic impacts are, you just have to do it.”

Fukuda said that one of the primary concerns he has is the impact on farmers in the region who rely on groundwater to irrigate fields. He added that progress in the last few years to educate farmers on sustainable water use have resulted in groundwater levels rising after nearly a decade of declines. Groundwater hit historically low levels in 2022.

Exactly how much farmland will need to be abandoned to meet groundwater sustainability is not fully understood. An estimate by the Public Policy Institute Center and reported by the Water Education Foundation claims a reduction of 500,000 acres, while economists with the University of California, Berkeley provided an even more bleak outlook. David Sunding and David Roland-Holst estimated that 1 million acres would need to be permanently fallowed (or left unsown). That much loss of farmland would take about 20% of the Calley’s agriculture out of business.

Fukuda said no one knows how big the impact will be.

“I will say that there will be a significant amount of agricultural production that we are going to lose in the state of California,” Fukuda said. “It doesn’t matter if it is one or 1 million, that is going to have an impact. It’s a family, a college education for somebody. That’s what I worry about.”

Fukuda said that regulations such as SGMA often hurt California’s poor more than anyone else. He explained that the loss of jobs that will be caused by SGMA will impact some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“Every industry here comes and goes, except ag,” Fukuda said. “Our two cities acknowledge the important role that agriculture plays in their communities. That is why we partnered together. We have to live with this issue together.”

If MKGSA is unable to get a plan approved before November, the agency will face regulatory oversight by the State Water Board which will then implement an interim plan that Fukuda said could exacerbate the harm that will come from SGMA.

“We are getting things right. We are getting our growers to move in a positive fashion,” Fukuda said. “If the State Board steps in under their probationary period, they are going to hurt that moment because the relationship then converts over to the State Board and the landowner. When a regulatory agency like the State Board steps in, that breaks the chain of trust.”

MKGSA is not alone in trying to overcome the regulatory obstacles of SGMA. The Water Foundation reports that nearly all of the water plans submitted up to 2021 did not meet requirements of the law. The Foundation reports that most of the plans overestimate groundwater recharge amounts and underestimate the amount of water that is pumped.

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