Largest Kern groundwater agency fades to the background as water districts continue to grapple with overpumping

December 11, 2023
by Lois Henry
Pipes lie next to a canal in preparation for construction of a large water recharge project in Kern County in this 2020 photo. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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What had been the single largest groundwater agency in Kern County  – the Kern Groundwater Authority – will be morphing into something new after the first of the year but no one is exactly sure what that new entity will be, nor what its duties will include.

“It’s not disbanding but I’m unsure exactly how it will continue,” said Dan Waterhouse, Chairman of the KGA board. “There will still be a need for an overarching entity to hold contracts and administer grant funds. But the subbasin is moving toward more regionality.”

The change comes after multiple water districts split from the KGA starting in 2022 to develop their own agencies and their own groundwater plans. At least part of the impetus of that Balkanization was potential enforcement action under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

SGMA mandates that critically overdrafted basins bring aquifers back into balance by 2040 and that all agencies must be coordinated in those efforts. Meaning, they have to use the same methods for measuring water use and monitoring water levels, among other things.

In March of this year, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) deemed Kern’s collection of groundwater plans submitted by the KGA “inadequate,” chiefly for a lack of coordination. The subbasin will come up for a hearing before the state Water Resources Control Board, SGMA’s enforcement arm, some time next year.

A key coordination failure noted by DWR was how each water district set its “minimum thresholds,” the lowest level the water table can drop without worsening water quality, harming wells or adding to the chronic depletion of the aquifer.

In particular, the Semitropic Water Storage District in northwest Kern, had set some of its minimum thresholds at levels that would allow farmers to pump down the water table by more than 180 feet from current levels.  And Semitropic’s minimum thresholds are often far below those of neighboring water districts, which could affect those districts’ ability to maintain their water levels.

Other districts were concerned that wouldn’t fly with the Water Board, which could put the entire subbasin into probationary status. Under probation, the Water Board can require registration of all wells, set its own pumping allotments and charge steep fees and fines. But there is a clause in the Water Code  that states: “The board shall exclude from probationary status any portion of a basin for which a groundwater sustainability agency demonstrates compliance with the sustainability goal.”

In water circles, it’s known as the “good guy clause.”

Even so, all the various groundwater plans still have to be coordinated under SGMA, noted Dan Bartel, general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, which also split from KGA.

He said districts are now meeting through an informal coordinating committee.

“The coordinating group has become what the KGA used to be, we’re all at the table like we were in 2017,” Bartel said. “Back then, everyone was a KGA member, then groups started splintering off to better position themselves, now we’re coming back together under the coordinating committee.”

The coordinating committee, however, is not an actual agency open to public attendance, nor is it subject to open meeting laws. Bartel said while that’s true, every action has to come back to each member agency’s board for discussion and approval and those are subject to open meeting laws.

Another thorny issue is what to do with the subbasin’s so-called “white lands.” Those are lands not covered by a water district, literally shown as white on district maps. Those lands typically don’t pay assessments to districts to buy and import surface water and are heavily groundwater dependent.

Under SGMA, those lands must be included in groundwater planning and KGA had taken on management of a large chunk. If KGA continues to shrink, so will its funding, leaving fewer members to shoulder more of the cost, Waterhouse said.

“It is a subbasin issue, not just a KGA issue,” Waterhouse said of the white lands. “But I do think everyone in the subbasin understands that.”

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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