Groundwater plans for two regions in the western San Joaquin Valley were deemed deficient by the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) on Friday.
The Westside subbasin, overseen by Westlands Water District, and the Delta-Mendota subbasin’s plans were officially labeled as “incomplete” by DWR. The state also found groundwater plans for the Paso Robles and Cuyama water subbasins incomplete.
Managers of those plans will now have 6 months to make recommended changes and submit the plans for approval again. If the plans are rejected at that time, the state Water Resources Control Board could take over the subbasins and manage groundwater directly, or take other, more punitive action.
Staff at DWR have been reviewing plans for the most critically overdrafted subbasins – most of which are in the San Joaquin Valley – since 2020 as part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
SGMA, passed in 2014, mandates that over-pumped aquifers be brought into balance by 2040. Balance, in general, means more water shouldn’t be pumped out than goes back in. SGMA was passed during California’s last major drought after so much groundwater was being pumped out for crops that hundreds of domestic wells in the valley went dry and large sections of land sank, damaging canals and other infrastructure.
While SGMA doesn’t mandate specific water table levels, it requires that groundwater plans avoid several “undesireable” results including: seawater intrusion; depletion of interconnected surface water (river water being sucked into a groundwater deficit, for example); continued land subsidence; chronic lowering of groundwater levels; water quality degradation and reduced groundwater storage.
The plans for Westlands and Delta-Mendota had several deficiencies that could create or exacerbate those undesirable results, according to the state.
The Delta-Mendota subbasin is made up of 23 groundwater agencies. Those agencies’ separate plans lack detail and are not coordinated, according to DWR’s report. The agencies have different goals and those goals aren’t coordinated with the subbasin’s overall sustainability target, the report stated.
Westlands’ plan does not adequately address issues of land subsidence, chronic lowering of groundwater levels and water quality problems, according to DWR’s report.
While some groundwater plans throughout the state have been approved, all San Joaquin Valley plans have been rejected so far. In November, the state issued preliminary reviews that warned of impending deficiencies for plans submitted by Westlands Water District, Chowchilla Water District and the Merced and Eastern San Joaquin subbasins.
In December, state staff also warned Delta-Mendota, Kaweah, Kern County, Kings, Tulare Lake and Tule subbasin managers that their plans were not adequate and would likely not be approved.
Some subbasin managers have already started the process of adjusting the plans.
On January 14, the Chowchilla Subbasin GSP Advisory Committee voted to approve a roughly $240,000 budget to begin plan revisions. And on January 18 at a Westlands Water District board meeting, a staff member said changes are being incorporated into the plan which is expected to be complete in April.
“We are disappointed that Westlands and DWR lacked sufficient time to adequately evaluate potential modifications to the Westside groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) in response to the November letter,” wrote Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands in a press release on Friday. “Westlands appreciates the opportunity to further engage with DWR to clarify the strategies outlined in the Westside GSP, and we are confident that the issues raised by the January 21, 2022, determination will be resolved in the next six months. We look forward to continuing to work with DWR to update the Westside GSP in full compliance with SGMA.”
At least one Westlands farmer and former board member wasn’t surprised by DWR’s findings.
“(SGMA) is real. We’re going to have to have some real projects and some real actions that we’re taking and I don’t think any of us met that mark,” said Sarah Woolf, president of agricultural water consulting firm Water Wise and former Westlands board member. “I’m not really surprised that Westlands is incomplete. They haven’t begun implementation, they say they have but they haven’t. There’s no (pumping) allocations. I think there’s a lot to be done before DWR is comfortable and calls the plan complete.”