The first of six inadequate San Joaquin Valley groundwater plans has been revised. Water managers in the Chowchilla subbasin made changes to its groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) and informally resubmitted the plan to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) in hopes of avoiding a probationary trial and state intervention.
In March, six valley plans were rejected by the state Department of Water Resources. The rejection moved the process on to the SWRCB, the enforcement arm of groundwater management.
On June 21, the board announced a tentative schedule of probationary hearings for the rejected subbasins. The hearings would, in theory, come before the state intervenes in groundwater management enforcing its own fees and pumping limitations.
Under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, water managers are mandated to bring aquifers back to “sustainable” levels by 2040. Generally, they must find ways to keep more water in the ground to avoid chronically lowered water tables, poor water quality and even subsidence, or land sinking.
The Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers most of Kings County, is scheduled to come before the SWRCB first, in December of 2023. It would be followed by the Tule subbasin, which covers the southern half of Tulare County, in January 2024.
Starting in October 2024, four other subbasins are scheduled for hearings before the SWRCB in the following order: the Kaweah subbasin, which covers the northern half of Tulare County; the Kern subbasin, which covers the valley portion of Kern County; the Delta Mendota subbasin, which runs along the west side of the valley from Fresno to Stanislaus counties; and the Chowchilla subbasin, which covers a chunk of northwestern Madera County.
“The key thing to remember is that a probationary hearing is only that, a hearing,” said Eric Oppenheimer, chief deputy director for the SWRCB, in a press release. “No determination about whether a basin will be placed on probation has been made.”
Still, most water managers had hoped to avoid the entire process.
In the interim, groundwater sustainability agencies in each subbasin are able to make changes to their plans and resubmit them to the state.
“What we’re doing is we are seeking a way back to DWR,” said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of water and natural resources for Madera County.
Staff looked to the Merced subbasin GSP, which was recommended for approval, for guidance on corrections, said Anagnoson.
“We didn’t have anything that was deemed acceptable in the valley before the Merced plan and others were deemed acceptable,” said Anagnoson. “So, now that we know what people want, I think we have a methodology from there that should be acceptable to the Department of Water Resources.”
The Chowchilla plan was rejected because of inadequate actions to stabilize groundwater levels and reduce subsidence. The revisions aim for zero subsidence by 2040 and chose a timeline for groundwater thresholds similar to the Merced plan, said Anagnoson.
Still, the resubmission is informal and staff hope to get feedback from the board, she said.
“We are in uncharted territory,” said Anagnoson. “No one really understands how this particular step is supposed to go.”