Going rogue? Groundwater agency says protecting all domestic wells is “unreasonable”

June 1, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
The Kings River East Groundwater Sustainability Agency, covers eastern Fresno County and a chunk of northern Tulare County. Its board of directors approved a letter disavowing ag's responsibility to raise groundwater levels enough to protect all domestic wells. SCREEN SHOT
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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A San Joaquin Valley  groundwater agency may be “going rogue” on the issue of whether it’s responsible to protect all drinking water wells.

A letter approved by the board of the Kings River East Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), which covers eastern Fresno County and a chunk of northern Tulare County, says that it is “unreasonable” for the state to require the agricultural industry to raise groundwater levels enough to protect even the most shallow domestic well.

The state’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) created GSAs in order to bring overpumped aquifers into balance by 2040. Groundwater has been overpumped to support the valley’s ag industry for decades resulting in subsidence, damage to infrastructure and domestic wells going dry. Within the past 365 days, 604 domestic wells have been reported as going dry, according to a statewide reporting website.

So far, every San Joaquin Valley groundwater sustainability plan has been rejected by the state Department of Water Resources (DWR), the agency overseeing the groundwater law. GSAs have until late July to address the state’s concerns and submit revised plans. 

DWR rejected the Kings Subbasin, which includes the Kings River East GSA, groundwater sustainability plan in January. 

One of the state’s biggest concerns was that the plan didn’t explain how it would protect community drinking water wells from being harmed by agricultural over pumping.

The Kings River East GSA’s letter calls that requirement “unreasonable.”

“It is significant and unreasonable to the agricultural industry as a whole to be responsible for raising the groundwater levels enough for every domestic well (no matter how shallowly drilled) and it is significant and unreasonable for the GSAs and their landowners to pay for any and every shallow well that goes dry,” the letter reads.  

It states that DWR has “verbally implied” that any single well going dry is unreasonable. Further, the GSA letter states, “we understand that DWR has indicated it is not likely to approve the Kings Subbasin GSPs unless they also adopt a domestic well mitigation program,” something the GSA says is not required under SGMA.

“If you are of a different understanding regarding a GSA’s purported responsibility over rural residential wells, we request you identify in SGMA the statutory requirement for such responsibility,” the letter ends.

Protecting drinking water is a “no brainer” under SGMA, said Susana De Anda, executive director and co-founder of nonprofit Community Water Center.

“When you’re already saying that the groundwater sustainability plans should not include that (domestic well mitigation), we’re just wasting our time,” said Susana De Anda, executive director and co-founder of nonprofit Community Water Center. “If we as humans live in this community we also deserve to have access to running water. That’s all we’re asking for. And these plans need to reflect that right now.”

De Anda said it’s clear the letter is claiming it’s not the GSA’s responsibility to protect domestic wells and DWR has no authority to force it. She hopes DWR will reject plans that forgo domestic well protections. 

If DWR does reject resubmitted plans in July, GSAs could lose local control of groundwater management to the state. It’s a possibility some GSA representatives are concerned about. 

“I want us to also be careful at the way that we work with the state,” said Eddie Valero, Tulare County supervisor and a board member of the Kings River East GSA. 

Valero is concerned about his GSA colleagues “going rogue” on the issue of domestic well mitigation. He worries it could lead to another rejection by the state and ultimately, a loss of control in the groundwater management process. 

“I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page, that we do not become a spotlight to the state in a negative way and just to make sure that we’re doing this judiciously, arduously, in a way that’s going to help our county and GSAs move forward and not work against.”

Domestic well mitigation programs are not required by SGMA, said Paul Gosselin, deputy director of SGMA for DWR. However, domestic wells going dry was one of the underpinning reasons for the creation of SGMA and GSAs are required to address all groundwater users, he added. 

“They are basically stewards of sustainability for all the groundwater uses and users in the basin, not just domestic wells but ag wells, groundwater dependent ecosystems and the like,” said Gosselin.   

DWR has not received the letter from the Kings River East GSA yet, according to a spokesperson from DWR. 

After a vote at the May 18 Kings River East GSA board meeting, the letter was sent to other Kings subbasin GSAs for approval, said Tulare County’s Valero. 

Chad Wegley, general manager of the Kings River East GSA, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

“We need to prioritize those of us that rely on groundwater instead of picking this fight and losing local control and having the state come in and tell you what to do,” said Community Water Center’s De Anda. “So let’s do this right.”  

Jesse Vad, SJV Water }

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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