Though the state’s first informal assessment of four San Joaquin Valley groundwater plans noted several — sometimes significant — deficiencies in those plans, groundwater managers were confident they could bring the plans up to snuff.
“I did not read it as a failure at all,” said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of water and natural resources for Madera County, which includes the Chowchilla district. “These are challenging water resource issues. I think it’s hard to be in the first batch of these where there’s no model.”
The Department of Water Resources issued letters on Nov. 18 to the Eastern San Joaquin and Merced subbasins as well as the Chowchilla and Westlands water districts calling out problems with those plans. DWR also approved four plans outside of the valley.
The letters pointed out concerns about a lack of information in the plans around chronic lowering of groundwater levels, land subsidence and water quality problems from overpumping. Of particular concern was how groundwater plans would — or would not — protect drinking water wells.
Gaining approval for a plan that doesn’t show how it will prevent wells from going dry, or how well owners will be helped in case they go dry, would be “a very high mountain to climb,” according to Paul Gosselin, Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management, for DWR.
The plans were submitted almost two years ago, a requirement of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) which passed in 2014. For generations, farmers have pumped water out of the ground for crops but overpumping has caused groundwater levels to plummet. SGMA aims to bring California’s aquifers back into balance so more water isn’t pumped out than goes back in.
Local groundwater agencies with the worst groundwater declines submitted plans to DWR by January 30, 2020. These preliminary assessments are not official rejections. DWR’s formal approval or rejection of the plans will come out in January, 2022. For plans that aren’t approved, groundwater agencies will then have six months to fix any deficiencies.
If the plans are still considered inadequate, DWR has the option to initiate consultation with the State Water Resources Control Board. If the Water Board finds a groundwater agency unwilling or unable to correct problems, it can take over a subbasin, set pumping allocations and issue fines and fees. It can even bring criminal charges, if necessary.
DWR’s letter on the Chowchilla district stated that there was not enough detail or analysis on the chronic lowering of groundwater levels and the district’s management of the problem. It also took issue with the problem of subsidence caused by overpumping and noted the plan doesn’t provide enough evidence and analysis on how much subsidence could occur and what infrastructure is at risk. It also stated there wasn’t enough information to prove that certain surface water sources, such as rivers and sloughs, weren’t interconnected with the district’s groundwater.
Anagnoson said the district has a lot more information since it submitted the plan almost two years ago. It has received a grant to gather more data on domestic wells. And the county groundwater agency is wrapping up a rate study which will provide even better well data, fund ag land retirement and a mitigation program that would pay for new wells for residents in need.
Anagnoson said DWR’s comments are reasonable at this point.
“I would emphasize this is really the first feedback we’ve had on writing something that is a 300-page plan and 1,000 pages of appendices,” said Anagnoson. “We want to meet with DWR and understand their concerns and figure out how to move ahead.”
DWR pointed out similar concerns in its letter to Westlands. The letter stated that Westlands’ plan did not include enough information on subsidence, chronic lowering of groundwater levels and degradation of water quality.
“Generally it feels like they’ve got a couple things wrong or misinterpreted them,” said Shelley Cartwright, deputy general manager of external affairs for Westlands. “Our staff seems pretty comfortable and confident that we can work through these issues with DWR through just providing a little additional clarification.”
On the issue of dropping groundwater levels, Cartwright said the district will ensure areas that have seen severe drops will be brought into balance. That will happen through pumping restrictions and more groundwater recharge, she added.
Subsidence and water quality degradation will also not be allowed by the district, said Cartwright.
“Maybe we need to provide a better explanation or make sure that our words communicate accurately what’s actually contained in our plan,” said Cartwright. “There is a path here for clarification and to work together to make sure that this complies with the law.”
Merced Subbasin managers did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The San Joaquin Valley districts’ plans come from some of the most severely overpumped areas in the state. That means groundwater managers have their work cut out for them there. And the drought is only making things more difficult.
“Under SGMA, all this extra groundwater pumping that’s occurring during the drought for agriculture is going to have to get repaid,” said Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Davis. “And to set up a way of actually doing that is going to be painful.”
Still, Lund said the process of SGMA is going as well as could be expected so far. And it’s not surprising that the approved plans have come from other parts of the state outside the valley, he added. For less wealthy, more severely overpumped districts in the valley, the process will be much more challenging, said Lund.
“I suspect that some of these plans are going to have genuine difficulties,” said Lund. “It’s still going to be a rough ride for a while for quite a few districts.”