In what appears to be a game of water chicken, at least one Kern County groundwater sustainability agency is refusing to sign a crucial document required to keep the entire subbasin out of state control.
Buena Vista GSA General Manager Tim Ashlock said Monday that his agency won’t sign a five-year “coordination agreement” with Kern’s other GSAs. The draft agreement is set to be considered for adoption at Wednesday’s Kern Groundwater Authority meeting.
“We are only willing to sign a one-year agreement,” Ashlock said.
Buena Vista is concerned that water budgets and groundwater plans presented by other GSAs in the Kern subbasin don’t acknowledge the scope of Kern’s overdraft and don’t do enough to curtail overpumping.
“If we signed a five-year agreement, we would have formally endorsed no changes,” Ashlock said. “That could result in another million acre feet of water lost through inaction.”
Without an overarching coordination agreement, the entire subbasin would likely be put in “probationary status,” which could mean the state Water Resources Control Board would develop its own pumping limitations for Kern and potentially charge fees of $300 per well and $40 per acre foot pumped.
Ashlock acknowledged that possible outcome.
He said Buena Vista has offered an alternative one-year plan that he hoped other GSAs would sign. If not, he said, Buena Vista still plans to submit its one-year plan to the Department of Water Resources on the Jan. 31, 2020 deadline for groundwater sustainability plans.
“The state would probably still put us in probation, but I think Buena Vista wouldn’t be seen as a bad actor,” Ashlock said.
The main GSA sticking in Buena Vista’s craw is its neighbor, the Semitropic Water District GSA.
Ashlock said Semitropic’s overdraft is massive, 300,000 to 400,000 acre feet a year, all on its own and that its plan doesn’t detail how it’s going to achieve any meaningful reduction.
“Semitropic was still overdrafting in 2017, the third wettest year in history. If they can’t make it in a year like that, they need to make some major corrections. And their plan appears to be to make a plan,” Ashlock said.
Incredibly, Semitropic’s water budget would continue to allow landowners to pump as much as 4.2 acre feet per acre, according to Ashlock.
“They’re letting them pump like crazy.
“And their plan shows them taking a lot of land out of use, but there aren’t any details for how they plan to do it,” Ashlock said. “Those are all things they should be dealing with, not us.”
Semitropic is dealing with those issues and many others, General Manager Jason Gianquinto said.
“They’re reading our plan wrong,” an exasperated Gianquinto said.
First of all, he said, Semitropic’s overdraft is about 165,000 acre feet a year — not 300,000 to 400,000. That’s still significant considering the total overdraft of all 16 members of the Kern Groundwater Authority comes to 256,000 acre feet. (Some observers, including Buena Vista, believe that is about 100,000 acre feet below Kern’s actual overdraft number.)
Second, Gianquinto said, Semitropic’s plan lists a number of actions to bring its overdraft to zero over the next 20 years. And he disputed Ashlock’s description of “crazy” pumping.
He said Semitropic disincentivized developing new farmland within the district starting in 2017 by applying a surcharge to new properties. The 4.2 acre feet per acre figure only applies to existing properties planted before 2017 and is only allowed in year one of the district’splan. That amount is ramped down in the future.
“It’s a temporary consumptive allocation,” Gianquinto said. “It’s not an asset and growers can’t store it for future use. We created a water budget that allows a glide path down to reduced demand.”
Signing onto the five-year draft coordination agreement doesn’t mean each GSA agrees with every other GSA’s plans. It just means they’re agreeing to use the same data sets and general understanding of basin operations, Gianquinto said.
The one-year plan being touted by Buena Vista wouldn’t be feasible considering DWR has two years to review the plans, he added.
“Hopefully we can come to some resolution,” Gianquinto said.
With the deadline to get groundwater plans to the state, neither side has much time to “blink.”