Madera groundwater plan accepted by state

November 11, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

Madera subbasin

7  Groundwater Sustainability Agencies – Madera County, Madera City, Madera Irrigation District, Madera Water District, Gravelly Ford, Root Creek and New Stone

4 Groundwater Sustainability Plans – 1 filed jointly by Madera county, city, irrigation and water district, 3 filed individually by Gravelly Ford, Root Creek and New Stone

SGMA Goals

California was one of the last western states to regulate groundwater.

The 2012-2016 drought revealed how badly some aquifers were depleted as farmers relied more heavily on groundwater to make up for diminished supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. And entire communities in the Central Valley were without water as wells went dry.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in 2014 to bring overdrafted groundwater basins into “sustainability.”

Groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) are due for critically overdrafted subbasins by Jan. 31, 2020. GSPs for other high- and medium-priority basins that aren’t critically overdrafted are due by Jan. 31, 2022.

Critically overdrafted basins have until 2040 to become sustainable, defined as avoiding six “undesireable results.”

1. Chronic lowering of the water table
2. Reduction of groundwater storage
3. Land subsidence
4. Water quality degradation
5. Seawater intrusion
6. Depletion of interconnected surface water

GSPs must also set “minimum thresholds,”  the lowest “safe” level for most water pumpers. GSPs’ management actions (finding new water supplies to recharge groundwater, or ways to decrease demand) must demonstrate that they are adequate to keep the basin above the listed minimum thresholds.

Plans must also have “measurable objectives,” meaning Groundwater Sustainability Agencies have to monitor and report how well they’re progressing toward sustainability.

The plans must be updated every five years.

BASIN BASICS

The San Joaquin Valley is one long groundwater basin that extends from Kern County up to, and including parts of, San Joaquin County.

That large swath is divided into two regions – the San Joaquin and Tulare Lake hydrologic regions.

The overall basin is divided into 19 subbasins (not all are critically overdrafted). Ten of the subbasins are in the northern San Joaquin hydrologic region and the rest are in the southern Tulare Lake hydrologic region.

Each subbasin must be covered by one or more Groundwater Sustainability Agencies responsible for bringing the subbasin into sustainability.

DWR’s main SGMA page with GSA and GSP information is HERE.

Or you can go HERE to type in your address to find your GSA.

Give these pages a minute to load as they have lots of layers of information.

Going north to south the San Joaquin Valley subbasins are listed below. Unless otherwise noted, all are critically overdrafted (COD).

San Joaquin hydrologic region
1. Cosumnes (not COD)
2. East Contra Costa (not COD)
3. Tracy (not COD)
4. Eastern San Joaquin
5. Modesto (not COD)
6. Turlock (not COD)
7. Merced
8. Delta-Mendota
9. Chowchilla
10. Madera
Tulare Lake hydrologic region
11. Kings
12. Westside
13. Pleasant Valley (not COD)
14. Tulare Lake
15. Kaweah
16. Kettleman Plain (not COD and low priority so not required to form a GSA or develop a GSP)
17. Tule
18. Kern County
19. White Wolf (not COD)

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The public can finally get a look at how Madera officials plan to correct severe groundwater over pumping and replenish aquifers in that area.

For some farmers, that correction will mean pumping limits of up to 50 percent from what’s allowed today.

Water budgets and water markets will also likely become the norm.

That information is outlined in the four Madera Subbasin Groundwater Sustainability plans, which were finally accepted by the state last month and are now open for public comment.

The plans are required under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which mandates overdrafted basins get their groundwater supplies in balance by 2040.

Plans had to be filed in January.

Madera’s plans were filed on time but without a coordinating agreement among the subbasin’s seven Groundwater Sustainability Agencies.

Because of that, Department of Water Resources staff couldn’t accept the documents.

They were kicked up to the State Water Resources Control Board, SGMA’s enforcement arm.

That’s considered dangerous territory by most water managers.

If plans have serious deficiencies, such as no coordination agreement, the Water Board could find the entire subbasin in default and essentially take over groundwater operations.

The state could dictate pumping allotments and charge fees of $300 per well and $40 per acre foot pumped.

The Madera subbasin appeared headed down that road.

But after a daylong mediation session among the Madera GSAs, a coordination agreement was signed and sent to the state in late June.

It took a few months, but in October, Madera water managers were notified their plans were accepted, according to Stephanie Anagnoson, director of Madera County’s GSA and its Department of Water and Natural Resources.

The plans are open for public comment through December.

Like most GSPs in the San Joaquin Valley, the Madera plans rely heavily on more water recharge by harnessing flood flows from local rivers, including the Fresno River, and the Chowchilla Bypass, which moves flood waters from the San Joaquin River north between Madera and Firebaugh.

But the Madera County plan also includes significant demand reduction.

Under SGMA, counties were given jurisdiction over areas not covered by specific water districts. Those areas are known as “white lands” because maps that show water district boundaries in various colors leave uncovered areas white.

Counties handled white land responsibility differently.

Madera formed a GSA specifically to oversee the white lands, which make up 215,000 acres in the Madera subbasin, Anagnoson said.

Most white lands have very little to no surface water, such as river water or water from canals. They rely almost exclusively on groundwater.

“So, we have to do demand reduction,” Anagnoson said.

For Madera County’s white land farmers that will mean a cut in pumping over the next 20 years up to 50% of what they pump now, according to the Madera County GSP.

That’s expected to reduce the area’s overdraft by 90,000 acre feet a year by 2040.

The plan shows a gradual reduction of 2% and then 6% per year as time moves on.

“It’s essentially a water budget,” Anagnoson said of the pumping reduction.

She expects the Madera County Board of Supervisors to vote on pumping allocations in December.

“People have to get used to the paradigm shifting,” she said. “These are areas where people haven’t paid for, or measured water. It was considered a right to pump as much as they wanted. That’s changing.”

The Madera County GSA is also working on creating a water market.

Water markets are a touchy subject in Madera after Enron tried to push through a water bank that would have sold water outside the county in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In fact, supervisors passed an ordinance making it illegal to export  water out of the county.

The GSA’s water market would be more along the lines of a local groundwater credit/trading system, according to the GSP.

“Yes, Enron still comes up,” Anagnoson said. “But SGMA changed everything. People are willing to look at options.”

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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