Calif. marks 10 years of groundwater sustainability

This San Joaquin County vineyard in Acampo in 2018 shows one of the area’s first flood-managed aquifer recharge, or flood-MAR, projects, used by irrigators to bolster the groundwater supply.(Christine Souza)

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act hits its 10th anniversary, driving local agencies towards sustainable water management amid challenges

CALIFORNIA – California’s landmark 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires local agencies in affected basins to develop and implement plans that identify a roadmap to protect groundwater for generations to come, turns 10 this year.

“If you think of the last 10 years when SGMA was first passed, a lot has happened,” said E. Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, during a webinar kicking off National Groundwater Awareness Week last week. “It was a historic drought that we had just experienced, and it was the impetus for the passage of SGMA.”

During the 2012-2015 drought, a lack of surface water and depleted groundwater supplies left some state residents without access to drinking water. This period brought agriculture—especially California’s citrus belt on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley—to a near halt. In Tulare County, blocks of citrus trees were abandoned or removed. For-sale signs and well-drilling rigs were common.

Tulare County farmer Zack Stuller recalls the summer of 2015, when he and area farmers had to make tough choices about what crops to irrigate and what to leave behind or remove.

“I know it was bad everywhere, but here in Tulare County, we were ground zero,” said Stuller, who farms citrus and custom-farms 3,000 acres of permanent crops. “We had to pick and choose. On the 100-acre ranch, I only had enough water to irrigate 30 acres.”

At that time, he said, the state’s surface water supply was depleted with low storage in reservoirs and little precipitation.

“Back then, I knew something needed to be done. We can’t bleed our valley dry,” he said. “SGMA is a huge change to California water law, but what it did is it made people aware.”

This Sept. 16 will mark 10 years since former Gov. Jerry Brown signed three pieces of legislation known collectively as SGMA. Under the 2014 law, local agencies must implement groundwater sustainability plans that demonstrate how they will balance challenged groundwater supplies within a 20-year timeframe.

It could be a difficult adjustment for California agriculture. Researchers studying the implementation of the groundwater law say they anticipate SGMA will result in the fallowing of between 500,000 to 1 million acres of farmland.

Located in the Kaweah subbasin, Stuller said he works primarily with three groundwater sustainability agencies and 27 irrigation districts, all of which have different SGMA requirements.

“It’s very, very complex,” Stuller said. “The rules are changing day by day, so I’m contemplating hiring a person just to work on this, because if you pump too much, you may get fined, so it is critical.”

Paul Gosselin, California Department of Water Resources deputy director of sustainable groundwater management, said “local agencies are on the ground in their communities, progressing towards a sustainable groundwater future for California, with support and guidance from DWR.” He said the milestones of the regulation have been met, and the next step is SGMA implementation.

“Now that all the high- and medium-priority basins have adopted plans, we’re making a transition towards basin stewardship. It is going to be our ongoing responsibility to assure that basins are on track to sustainability and in compliance,” Gosselin said.

DWR approved plans for 71 basins. For the 13 basins rated as incomplete, the agency is working with agencies to address recommended corrective actions. In addition, DWR found that sufficient action has not been taken to address one or more deficiencies in the following six subbasins: Chowchilla, Delta-Mendota, Kaweah, Kern County, Tulare Lake and Tule.

DWR said plans must show how the basin will achieve long-term sustainability by limiting overdraft, land subsidence and impacts to drinking water. An inadequate determination triggers state intervention and authorizes the state water board to step in to manage the basin. The state water board is set to consider designating the Tulare Lake subbasin as a probationary basin at its April 16 meeting.

Under SGMA, local agencies must implement near-term actions, such as expanding monitoring programs, reporting annually on groundwater conditions, implementing aquifer recharge projects and designing allocation programs.

San Joaquin County farmer Joe Valente, who is president of the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District, said the district plans to keep working to meet the goals of SGMA. The district has been recharging groundwater since 2018, when it flooded a vineyard in Acampo. This year, he said the district is taking advantage of flood flows for flood-managed aquifer recharge, or flood-MAR.

“Our district has a challenge, which is we have a junior water right, so we may have water six out of 10 years,” said Valente, a San Joaquin County vineyard manager. “Growers are seeing the value of groundwater recharge. We have been doing groundwater recharge all winter.”

The district has also taken advantage of grant funding through the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, or SWEEP.

“There’s always a line in the sand about this is my district or this is your district, but now we’re looking at it as our basin, so how can we work together?” Valente said. “We talked to Stockton East Water District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District, and both agreed to partner with us. We got about $5 million.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture said it has paused the solicitation for SWEEP due to the state’s significant budget deficit.

As local agencies and the state transition to SGMA implementation, Alexandra Biering, senior policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau, said, “we’re starting to see people and organizations who are saying, ‘Maybe SGMA’s not working; maybe it needs to be changed.’”

“Some outside of the SGMA world are anxious to change the way the regulatory framework is implemented, but doing that is not going to be effective or help us to achieve sustainability any faster,” Biering said. “If you add new additional requirements to move the bar or change what locals are supposed to do midstream, it is going to make it a lot more challenging for people to achieve that sustainability benchmark.”

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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