Since 2015, the state has doled out nearly $150 million to groundwater agencies for planning and projects. The flow of money has been almost nonstop for some agencies and has made it possible to operate consistently.
But the tap is shutting off.
Groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) are meant to be self-sufficient and generate their own operating funds through fees. With the state’s pot of grant money dwindling, GSAs are facing a future with potentially much less state support.
In 2014 the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which aims to bring groundwater basins into balance by 2040. That goal is to be met locally, driven by the GSAs that will institute pumping regulations and projects to build up groundwater savings.
But people have become accustomed to free money from the state, according to some managers.
“We’ve received an immense amount of money,” said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of water and natural resources for Madera County. “It gives people the idea that stuff is free.”
That is the “crux of the problem,” she said.
Anagnoson oversees the Madera County GSA which covers “white lands,” meaning growers there rely entirely on pumping groundwater and are not within any irrigation districts to receive surface water.
Managers of white land areas have had to build a fee structure from scratch to pay for ongoing projects in hopes of meeting the state’s groundwater goals. But the GSA staff has also experienced aggressive backlash from many growers who don’t want to pay for groundwater which they’ve pumped for free for generations.
In the Chowchilla subbasin, farmers voted against implementing fees for projects.
“Now they have no programs,” said Anagnoson. “I’m not sure that’s a great outcome.”
The reduction in state funding comes as half a dozen San Joaquin Valley groundwater subbasins are scrambling to beef up their sustainability plans after the Department of Water Resources rejected them as inadequate. The Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County, is first to come before the board in Dec. 2023. The rest will follow in 2024, those include the Kern, Tule, Kaweah, Delta-Mendota and Chowchilla subbasins.
All have received substantial public funding to pay for everything from subsidence studies to data management systems.
Since 2015, Madera County GSAs have received about $24 million in grants from the state. That money came from Proposition 1 and Proposition 68 funds, both money pots aimed at building climate resiliency and water sustainability. Grants also came from the state’s general budget.
Merced County received about $13 million, Fresno County $17 million, Kings County $7.6 million, Tulare County $25 million and Kern County $22 million. About $40 million was spread throughout those counties to non-GSA entities, such as water and irrigation districts, for SGMA grants too.
But the time of big money to GSAs has apparently come to an end.
“At this time the State does not have any additional funding to award through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Grant Program,” wrote a spokesperson for the state Department of Water Resources in an email. “Additional funding could come in the future but that has yet to be determined.”
The state will still provide technical assistance, data and tools to the GSAs, wrote the spokesperson.
But when it comes to self-sufficiency, GSAs, “have the power and authority to assess groundwater pumpers within their basin to generate funding to build projects that support the implementation of their GSP (groundwater sustainability plan.)”
“It’s not appropriate to try to depend on state funding for something that they should, in theory, be able to fund themselves,” said Nataly Escobedo Garcia, policy coordinator for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “It’s becoming even more pressing given that we had a deficit this year. We’re gonna head into another budget deficit next year.”
Garcia said she doesn’t blame the GSAs for relying on what was available from the state.
But despite the tapering off of state funds, Garcia said she hasn’t seen many GSAs exploring fees to keep the agencies running.
GSAs are implementing fees for overpumping groundwater in many areas, but that’s not a reliable source of money to rely on, said Garcia. Ideally, there shouldn’t be many overpumping fees collected since sustainability is the goal, she added.
Anagnoson echoed the same concern and said many GSAs are relying heavily on variable fees, meaning fees that are tied to water usage and don’t have a fixed base rate.
“If you put too much of your funding into the variable costs, you end up in a crazy place,” said Anagnoson. “When there’s less water available, or it’s a drought, or you’re told to cut back from the state, all of the sudden, you don’t have enough money to run your agency.”