South valley groundwater managers to use $10 million to protect community water and look for ways to retire up to 100,000 acres of farmland

July 25, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
A state map of disadvantaged census places show Woodville, Tipton and Poplar in Tulare County. The Pixley Irrigation District Groundwater Sustainability Agency intends to focus some of a $10 million state grant on shoring up groundwater supplies in those communities. SOURCE: https://gis.water.ca.gov/app/dacs/
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

Where the $$ comes from

Funding for grants aimed at retiring farmland comes from California’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program. The program was created with $50 million in funding from the 2021 state budget.

Gov. Newsom proposed an additional $60 million in his May budget revise and a state Senate proposal would add another $500 million, but those issues are still being hashed out in budget negotiations.

Legislators realized the state needed to find new uses for farmland as growers face greater restrictions on how much groundwater they can pump under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

San Joaquin Valley farmers had been pumping groundwater without limits for generations which has caused water tables to plummet, drying up drinking water wells and sinking land, which has damaged roads, bridges and key canals.

SGMA requires groundwater agencies bring aquifers into balance by 2040. For that to happen, some estimates are that nearly one million acres of valley farmland will need to come out of production.

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Three San Joaquin Valley water agencies are gearing up to spend $10 million each in grant funding from the state Department of Conservation to retire or repurpose farmland.

Valley agencies that have received grants so far include the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District, Pixley Irrigation District Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) and Madera County.

SJV Water will look at how each agency plans to use its $10 million in separate articles. Click here for our previous article on Madera County.

The Pixley Irrigation District GSA sits within the Tule subbasin in the southern San Joaquin Valley just north of  Kern County. For generations, farmers there have overpumped groundwater causing aquifer levels to plummet and the ground to sink. 

Estimates are that 100,000 acres of farmland will need to be taken out of production if the subbasin is to comply with state law and reach groundwater sustainability, said Reyn Akiona, watershed coordinator for the Tule subbasin.

“There’s sort of a philosophical shift that’s occurring,” said Akiona. “We’re basically looking at prioritization of recharge and prioritization of land retirement around disadvantaged communities.”

The $10 million grant from the state’s newly created Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program will be spread across the subbasin through a variety of uses in the areas most impacted by overpumping. 

The money will help fund the process of creating a plan and accompanying policies to allow groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) in the subbasin to retire and repurpose land. The subbasin already charges farmers for overpumping groundwater. But those fees have yet to fund land repurposing. 

The state grant will help GSA staff identify where land could be acquired and what land is best for repurposing. That will open the door to adopting policies that allow for the overpumping fees to go toward repurposing, said Akiona. 

The money will also help pay for “on-ground implementation work,” said Akiona. 

That includes water recharge projects focused around disadvantaged communities, particularly in the area around the small town of Teviston, where residents were out of water last summer when their well stopped working during blistering temperatures. 

Some of the grant funding will be set aside for water security projects in disadvantaged communities. The small town of Allensworth which is burdened by arsenic-laden groundwater, will get $650,000, said Akiona. 

UC Merced will also receive some funding to help evaluate the recharge projects around disadvantaged communities. UC Merced will be joined by other partners including the Nature Conservancy and the Tule Basin Land and Conservation Trust to facilitate outreach and create an internship program. The program will bring in high school students from local communities to work in water management. 

Like Madera County, the subbasin has already been working on repurposing projects. 

The Tule Basin Land and Conservation Trust was formed by groundwater specialists, growers and conservationists to help guide GSAs and facilitate land repurposing. 

One of the trust’s first projects was the Capinero Creek Project. At the end of 2021, Pixley Irrigation District GSA purchased a 465-acre dairy which will now be repurposed through the trust. The Bureau of Reclamation is funding the project and the land will be restored to upland habitat. 

In the scope of 100,000 acres, the Capinero Creek Project, “sounds pretty small,” said Akiona. “But it’s a big step culturally.”

The land will likely be fully retired within the next two months, he added. And habitat restoration will begin in fall of 2023. Some funding from the $10 million will go toward that project. 

In the meantime, Pixley Irrigation District is trying something new to better protect disadvantaged communities in the area from going dry because of surrounding ag pumping. 

The district will send some of the surface water it receives to farmers around disadvantaged communities, said Eric Limas, general manager of Pixley Irrigation District. Those growers will then shut off ag wells which, managers hope, will help groundwater levels in those communities rebound. 

“Groundwater levels are dropping in our entire district,” said Limas. “So that’s why we’re running the water this way, to try to protect those wells for the domestic and municipal as best we can.”

The district is targeting Woodville, Poplar and Tipton. Those communities’ drinking water wells are still functioning. But in previous summers, the wells have had problems when groundwater levels dropped. It’s a situation water managers are trying to avoid. 

The district isn’t receiving much surface water this year since the Bureau of Reclamation has slashed allocations due to drought. It will receive about 9,000 acre feet, said Limas. 

About 5,000 acre feet of that must go to rights holders. The rest will be targeted at properties surrounding Woodville, Poplar and Tipton. 

That doesn’t mean water won’t be pumped. Landowners elsewhere in the district who don’t get that surface water will get groundwater credits they can use later.

The idea is to move the pumping further out, away from the communities and alleviate some pumping near the towns. 

It’s a new strategy that the district will likely use again in drought years, said Limas. 

Jesse Vad, SJV Water }

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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