Kings County groundwater plan raising questions

November 15, 2021
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

SGMA EXPLAINER

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in 2014 and enacted in 2015.

It aims to stop groundwater overpumping in critically overdrafted basins by 2040 and bring them into “sustainability.”

Sustainability is defined as avoiding undesireable results: 1. Chronic lowering of groundwater. 2. Reduction of groundwater storage. 3. Seawater intrusion. 4. Land subsidence. 5. Degraded water quality. 6. Depletion of interconnected surface water.

The San Joaquin Valley water basin is considered critically overdrafted, as are most of its subbasins including:
Madera
Kings (Fresno area)
Westside (Westlands Water District)
Kaweah (Visalia area)
Tulare Lake (Kings County)
Tule (Delano area)
Kern County (the valley portion). Kern also encompasses the critically overdrafted Indian Wells Valley basin near Ridgecrest.

SGMA mandated that Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), made up of local agencies (mostly agricultural water districts), cover each subbasin completely.  Those were formed in 2017.

CLICK HERE  to look up which GSA you live in.

Each GSA must provide a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP ) to bring the subbasins into sustainability. The GSAs can write individual GSPs, work together on a single plan, or provide chapters within a larger GSP.

The plans are to be submitted to the Department of Water Resources by Jan. 31, 2020.

Though GSAs may each write their own sustainability plans, the state requires that all the data and methodology be consistent and in agreement.

If the information is inconsistent or doesn’t agree or doesn’t seem likely to avoid the six listed undesirable results, the state could reject the plan and the subbasin could be placed in probation. Under probation, the state could step in and create an interim sustainability plan for the subbasin.

Under that scenario, the state would require all entities that pump groundwater to provide it with extraction reports on each well being pumped. The state would also require fees of $300 per well and $40 per acre foot of water pumped.

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It’s hard to imagine state officials giving the thumbs up to a groundwater sustainability plan that potentially allows Corcoran – California’s subsidence epicenter – to sink up to another 11 feet.

Especially considering the tiny, rural town was forced to spend $14 million in 2017 to rebuild its levees following the 2012-16 drought when it suffered subsidence of up to 1.5 feet a year.

But the joint Tulare Lake Subbasin GSP, indeed, allows for subsidence of between 6 and a maximum of 11 feet beneath Corcoran and the town of Lemoore between now and 2040.

How that will pass muster under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act remains to be seen.

One of the main reasons the act was passed in 2014 was to get a handle on runaway subsidence that’s been wrecking roads, bridges, levees and canals. Not to mention keeping groundwater levels high enough so shallow drinking water wells don’t dry up in another drought, leaving entire communities without water.

Yet, the Tulare Lake plan also allows for groundwater levels to drop up to 100 feet in some areas of the subbasin, which covers most of Kings County.

These are issues playing out over millions of acres of farmland throughout the Central Valley as new SGMA rules are just starting to bear down.

But while most groundwater sustainability agencies in the valley have struggled to develop meaningful plans to slow or halt overpumping, it seems Tulare Lake’s five GSAs opted instead for a “nothing to see here” stance.

In fact, the plan plainly states: “Land subsidence has been effectively managed by the GSA member agencies. The rate and degree to which subsidence has occurred have not been significant and unreasonable.”

Same with groundwater levels: “The groundwater level declines have been effectively managed by the GSA member agencies. The rate and degree to which groundwater levels have declined over the long-term have not been significant and unreasonable,” according to the Tulare Lake groundwater sustainability plan.     (Corcoran subsidence chart with and without gsp   Lemoore subsidence chart with gsp and baseline)

Those statements seem contrary to the California Department of Water Resources’ designation of the Tulare Lake Subbasin as “critically overdrafted,” meaning groundwater extraction regularly exceeds the surface supply leading to unacceptable subsidence and groundwater depletion.

“I think DWR will be taking a hard look at this,” predicted Steve Jackson, a board member on the Southwest Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency, one of five GSAs in the Tulare Lake Subbasin that signed off on this plan. The plan had to be submitted by January 31, but Jackson had concerns abut how the plan would be viewed.

“I think we’ll get some pushback.”

HIGH STAKES GAMBLE

The DWR is just beginning to review sustainability plans filed last month by water agencies up and down the state. If it deems the Tulare Lake plan inadequate, it could result in the basin being put into “probationary status.”

Under probation, the State Water Resources Control Board would take control of groundwater pumping in the subbasin. It would require anyone pumping groundwater to submit detailed extraction reports and pay fees of $300 per well plus $40 per acre foot pumped. And it could write its own, interim groundwater sustainability plan, which could include severe pumping restrictions.

The specter of state interference in local water use has prodded most Central Valley GSAs to draw up detailed plans with a host of “management actions” to shore up groundwater levels and prove to the state they’re taking SGMA seriously.

Whether those management actions are adequate, or even feasible, may be debatable. But they are included in most groundwater sustainability plans.

Comparatively, the Tulare Lake plan has only a handful of sketched out management actions, with most of the rest listed as “potential projects.”

“Once the GSP is approved, the projects and management actions previously selected by each GSA will be advanced and implemented,” the plan states.

The five GSAs that make up the Tulare Lake Subbasin  include Mid-Kings River, South Fork Kings, El Rico, Tri-County and Southwest Kings.

Though all five GSAs approved the plan, some board members have deep misgivings about whether the state will find it acceptable.

BETTER STEWARDS

Doug Verboon is a small farmer growing walnuts in the northern part of Kings County. He’s a board member of the South Fork Kings GSA and a county supervisor.

He has been a vocal critic of the Tulare Lake groundwater plan despite having voted for approval in mid-January.

“I wish it had been more aggressive. It’s not strong enough. But at least we’re all talking now,” he said of the five GSAs. “We need to be much better stewards of our water.”

Aside from concerns about continued subsidence, groundwater declines and a lack of clearly defined projects, Verboon was also upset the plan didn’t address groundwater exports.

“We need to remove the temptation for people to sell groundwater outside the basin.”

And he worried that plans to fallow cropland could allow larger farming operations to force out smaller farmers, according to a comment letter he submitted in December.

The largest GSA in the subbasin, El Rico GSA, covers ground mostly owned by farming giant J. G. Boswell.

WHO’S PUMPING WHAT?

Jeof Wyrick, a Boswell employee, is the spokesman for El Rico and has served as the main contact for the Tulare Lake Subbasin GSP.

He answered a couple questions about the draft plan, before the final plan was publicly released in late January.

Though he said there had been changes between the draft and the final, he said neither version purposely worsened subsidence and groundwater levels.

One of the problems with SGMA, he said, is that it carves up large “blobs of land” and demands a single management plan without allowing for different groundwater supply, quality and uses within those blobs.

That said, he agreed that the Tulare Lake plan, like most Central Valley plans, lacks good data, which is why the project list is vague.

“Until you know who’s pumping what, it’s hard to make a specific plan,” he said.

Wyrick did not return calls about the final GSP to discuss what changes had been made.

Not many, per a review by neighboring Westlands Water District, which commented on the draft plan in December.

EMERGENCY WATER FUND

In that letter, Westlands urges GSA members of Tulare Lake to reconsider setting groundwater levels substantially lower than where Westlands has set its levels.

Westlands, which makes up the Westside Subbasin west and north of Tulare Lake, set its rock bottom groundwater levels at those reached during the 2012-2016 drought. Those are its “minimum thresholds.”

But it put its “measurable objectives,” the levels it will strive for, much higher, said Russ Freeman, Westlands Deputy General Manager for Resources.

“We have a number of aggressive management actions to maintain our levels much higher,” he said. “That’s difficult to do when right next door, they’re dropping their levels an extra 60 to 100 feet. So, yes, we still have concerns.”

Westlands’ view is the water between the upper measurable objectives and lower minimum thresholds is an emergency account to be tapped only in event of another severe drought.

The Tulare Lake plan’s levels “aren’t reasonable if they’re looking at this the same way we are,” Freeman said.

Groundwater plans for critically overdrafted subbasins were due to the state by Jan. 31. The DWR should make the plans public in the next 20 days, opening a 75-day comment period.

MOST PLANS UNDERWHELMING

Though the Community Water Center, a nonprofit watchdog group supporting clean drinking water, didn’t review the Tulare Lake plan, Regional Water Management Coordinator Adriana Renteria, wasn’t surprised by the criticism she was hearing.

“Most of the plans are poor,” Renteria said of the Central Valley SGMA plans. “No pumping limits, increased subsidence, a number of wells that will go dry. That’s stuff we found in every plan. So, problems aren’t exclusive to Kings County or that GSP.”

She said most of the plans seem to be outlines of actions water managers may take in the future.

“We were anticipating that 2020 would be the start of actual projects to improve groundwater in the valley,” Renteria said. “The reality is, beginning in January is when decisions will start to be made.

“I think, as a state, we had much different expectations of how SGMA would roll out.”

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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