By: Pedro Hernandez, The Ivanhoe Sol
In 2014 then Governor Jerry Brown and the California Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The goal of the legislation was to begin the process of managing groundwater use and levels in sustainable ways that would prevent “undesirable results” like ground subsidence, water contamination, and dry wells.
SGMA requires local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) in medium- and high-priority groundwater basins to develop and implement Groundwater Sustainability Plans – a series of management actions and data collection to ensure the region reaches “sustainability” in twenty years.
At the time, California was experiencing the first years of a prolonged drought that had negatively impacted agriculture, drinking water, and the environment. Additionally, while there were many laws governing the use of surface water like canals and rivers, groundwater was virtually unrestricted.
This meant that both household users with private wells and farmers could use as much groundwater as possible – as long as they could afford to drill deeper wells.
The implementation of SGMA meant that various regions would be divided into different regions or in this case, “subbasins”, to reflect how local hydrology did not follow along traditional county or city boundaries. Tulare County was divided into the Kaweah Subbasin and three separate “groundwater sustainability agencies” – Mid-Kaweah, East Kaweah, and Greater Kaweah – where Ivanhoe is located.
The Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency is governed by various representatives from different stakeholder groups including from irrigation districts, water conservation districts, and the County of Tulare. The current roster includes:
- Don Mills – Director/Chair Lakeside Irrigation Water District
- Chris Tantau – Director/Vice Chair
- Brian Watte– Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District
- Pete Vander Poel– County of Tulare
- Johnson, Stephen – California Water Service Company
- Ernie Taylor- Kings County Water District
- Eric Shannon– St. Johns Water District
- Paul Boyer – Rural Communities Committee
- Joe Cardoza–Stakeholder Committee
A Series of Rejections
Under SGMA, each groundwater sustainability agency is required to develop a plan to manage groundwater levels and reach “sustainability by the year 2040. While the water management plan was submitted in 2021, the State Water Resource Control Board had also given an “incomplete determination” and as of March 2, 2023 has determined that “the actions taken to correct deficiencies identified by the Department were not sufficient.
“The Department has evaluated the revised Plan for the Kaweah Subbasin in response to the Department’s incomplete determination on January 28, 2022 and has determined that the actions taken to correct deficiencies identified by the Department were not sufficient “
The Kaweah Subbasin submitted a joint plan to reach sustainability on July 27th and after initial review the state had declared the plan inadequate. https://greaterkaweahgsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Agenda-Packet-IP.pdf
Of the twelve plans submitted for correction, the Kaweah basin is one of six that was declared inadequate.
The list of other agencies with inadequate plans are all based in the San Joaquin Valley:
- 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 CountyAs a result, the Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency faces potential state intervention where the State Water Resources Control Board can step in until the Greater Kaweah demonstrates ability to address the identified inadequacies. Correspondence dated MArch 2 to the Greater Kaweah GSA states “further assess a plan, including any updates, and may provide technical recommendations to remedy deficiencies to that plan. In addition, the responsibilities of the GSA do not end with an inadequate determination.”A Deeper Dive into InadequaciesThe Greater Kaweah GSA has been given 180 days to make the necessary corrections and submit a revised plan to the state. The specific issues identified include
- Inadequate measurable outcomes: The State identifies several essential components of the sustainability plan that lack sufficient detail such as “mitigation actions” and “sustainable management criteria for the chronic lowering of groundwater levels.” Specifically, the state says, “It is never expressly made clear what specific conditions the Plans are meant to avoid, which causes uncertainty in how the basin will be managed to achieve sustainability and precludes or impairs the Department’s ability to evaluate the likelihood of the Plan to attain sustainability goals, and would prevent the Department and the public at large from monitoring progress towards any sustainability goal under that Plan.”
- Inadequate analysis of groundwater subsidence’s impact on the Friant Canal : As mentioned, SGMA is meant to prevent “undesirable results” like ground subsidence of damage to water conveyance infrastructure. To this end, in its determination the Department of Water Resources says “The Plan does not explain how it was determined that approximately 10 inches or greater amount of subsidence would result in a 10% or more capacity loss in the Subbasin’s conveyance infrastructure.”
In a press release,DWR Director Karla Nemeth says “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.”
According to the State Water Board the next step is for the State Water Board to consider making a probationary determination of the basin. This is done using a public process that includes a public hearing. If the State Water Board designates a basin as “probationary,” a term used in the SGMA law, during the probationary period, GSAs have time to address the issues (deficiencies) that caused the basin to go into probation.
During the probationary period, the State Water Board will focus on data collection and analysis to better understand what management challenges are occurring in the basin. To acquire the necessary data, the State Water Board can require extractors install meters so extractors can measure and report their groundwater extractions accurately, or the State Water Board can specify other means for measuring and reporting groundwater extractions.
To end State Water Board management of a groundwater basin, GSAs in that basin will have to demonstrate to the State Water Board (in consultation with DWR) their ability and willingness to manage groundwater sustainably and address the issues that caused state intervention to occur. This may require changes to the GSPs, revision of coordination agreements among the GSAs, pumping restrictions, or other measures to provide assurances that ongoing local management will be effective.