Madera groundwater plans kicked back by state for not protecting domestic wells, ignoring subsidence

September 22, 2022
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
Excessive groundwater pumping caused the land to sink beneath this bridge over the Eastside Bypass between Firebaugh and Madera. Concrete posts that used to support the bridge, sank along with the land and had to be replaced. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water

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The state kicked Madera County groundwater plans back for a redo on Thursday, noting, in particular, that they had set water levels so low it could endanger hundreds of domestic wells.

The plans also all but ignored ongoing damage to roads, bridges and canals caused by sinking land, subsidence, opting mostly to “monitor” the situation.

That isn’t good enough, according to Department of Water Resources staff, who reviewed the Groundwater Sustainability Plans as part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. SGMA requires over pumped aquifers be brought into balance by 2040.

The seven Madera subbasin groundwater sustainability agencies, which submitted four plans, now have 180 days to correct the problems and resubmit their plans.

“We’re not surprised that it’s an incomplete determination,” said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of water and natural resources for Madera County. Because other valley plans were deemed incomplete back in January, Anagnoson said she was anticipating Madera’s to receive the same determination. “As a water resources planner, these are really a tough thing to write because there’s nothing to look for in terms of a previously acceptable plan.”

As for the subsidence issues, Anagnoson said based on surveys, most of the subsidence issues were in the Chowchilla area, not the Madera area. But she acknowledged there has been new subsidence data and that staff will be taking a look at it again and working with DWR to address the deficiencies. 

Staff from the Root Creek Water District GSA and the New Stone Water District GSA declined to comment on the determination. Staff from other GSAs in the subbasin did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Other GSAs include Gravelly Ford, Madera Irrigation District, Madera Water District and Madera City.

Aside from problems with water levels and subsidence, DWR evaluations also found the Madera subbasin GSAs didn’t coordinate on goals, definitions or even data. The plans also didn’t account for interconnected surface water depletions, meaning over pumping near rivers.

But the two most glaring problems appeared to be how the plans set water levels known as “minimum thresholds” and subsidence.

Under SGMA, minimum thresholds are supposed to be the lowest allowable level of groundwater that won’t cause significant harm to other users, such as drinking water wells. If groundwater is allowed to go below minimum thresholds, GSAs have to take action.

The GSAs are also supposed to set “measurable objective” water levels, which are higher than minimum thresholds and what GSAs should be shooting for as a sustainable level.

DWR found that not only did the Madera GSAs set minimum thresholds below historic lows seen in 2015, one GSA – New Stone – even set its measurable objectives below those historic lows.

Given that 184 domestic wells have gone dry at current water levels, which are much higher than those projected in the plans, DWR staff wrote that “..strongly suggests the GSPs’ analysis of potential impacts to domestic wells requires reevaluation and revision.”

In fact, the State Water Resources Control Board did its own analysis that showed between 895 to 1,399 domestic wells could be dried up if water levels dropped to the minimum thresholds outlined in the Madera GSA plans, according to the DWR evaluation.

DWR staff also required GSAs to rethink their stance that “…subsidence has not been considered to have caused harm to infrastructure.”

Public comments received by DWR from the Central Valley Flood Protection Board said subsidence has already damaged wells, pipelines, roads, bridges and canals. 

“It does not seem reasonable nor commensurate with the current level of understanding of the Subbasin not to develop sustainable management criteria for land subsidence,” DWR wrote.

No plans in the San Joaquin Valley subbasins, which are all considered critically overdrafted, were accepted by the state. But most were reviewed in January and resubmitted in July.

Madera was late because its initial plan was rejected by the state when New Stone GSA refused to sign a coordination agreement.

Groundwater agencies in Madera now have until March 1, 2023 to redo their plans. 

If they still aren’t up to snuff after that, DWR staff could send them up to the state Water Resources Control Board, SGMA’s enforcement arm. 

Consequences for noncompliance could include pumping limits, fines and fees set by the state.

Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water }

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