More Kern County water districts split with larger authority

October 26, 2022
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
by Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
North Kern Water Storage District's recharge ponds next to Zerker Road are filled with water in this 2019 photo. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern

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Two more members of the Kern Groundwater Authority (KGA) announced that they will form their own groundwater sustainability agencies, continuing a pattern of members distancing themselves from Kern County’s largest groundwater agency.

The Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District and North Kern Water Storage District will each form their own GSA, it was announced at the Oct. 26 KGA meeting. The districts will remain members of KGA and will continue to abide by the groundwater sustainability plan, but will have more influence over their own districts. By contrast, the city of Shafter will leave KGA, and have its interests represented by the water districts whose boundaries cover most of the city limits.

“We felt like it was a kind of duplicative effort to have the city as a separate member,” said Mike James, Shafter’s public works director.

It was not immediately clear why the Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District and North Kern Water Storage District formed their own GSAs.

However, the split comes on the heels of other entities deciding to leave KGA amidst concerns over how it will address the region’s substantial groundwater deficit. In April, four entities left the larger group to form their own groundwater agency and write their own plan. Two months later, another group of water districts formed their own groundwater sustainability agency, though they remained members of the larger Kern Groundwater Authority.

Those groups told SJV Water that they were in part motivated by concerns of state enforcement against the KGA. In January, the Department of Water Resources found that Kern County’s groundwater plans were incomplete and the group was given until July to make revisions.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) mandates water agencies bring overdrafted aquifers into balance by 2040. That, generally, means more water shouldn’t be pumped out than goes back in. The Kern aquifer is over-pumped by at least 320,000 acre feet a year. 

One factor in addressing the groundwater deficit is setting minimum thresholds, which represent the lowest level the water table can drop without worsening water quality, harming wells or adding to the chronic depletion of the aquifer.

But the Semitropic Water Storage District in northwest Kern has set some of its minimum thresholds at levels that would allow farmers to pump down the water table, on average, by more than 180 feet from its current levels. Semitropic’s water levels are often far below the minimum thresholds of neighboring water districts, which could affect those districts’ ability to maintain their water levels. The KGA has so far not taken action against Semitropic, spurring some members to leave the group.

 If the subbasin cannot coordinate its groundwater plans, the state may put the entire subbasin into probation under SGMA. By forming their own groundwater sustainability agencies, water districts may avoid that enforcement.

Still, James said that this was not Shafter’s rationale for leaving the KGA. James said Shafter’s water interests were already represented to the KGA by the Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District and North Kern Water Storage District. Their jurisdictional boundaries encompass most of the city of Shafter.

Additionally, many of Shafter’s landowners were already paying members of the other two water districts, so leaving the KGA will cut costs for the city, he said.

The city does not currently plan to form its own GSA, and aims to contribute to the groundwater sustainability plans that cover the city limits, but not to write its own plan, he added.

Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern }

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