State refuses to accept groundwater plans for the Madera subbasin

February 26, 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 hydrologic 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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In the first indication of how strict state officials will be with new groundwater sustainability agencies, the Department of Water Resources has refused to accept groundwater plans covering the Madera subbasin because one of those agencies did not sign a coordination agreement.

The DWR has not posted the submitted groundwater sustainability plans on its website and notified all the GSAs that it is talking with the State Water Resources Control Board — the state’s enforcement arm — about the issue.

“After the consultation process is complete, DWR will notify you of our final determination for the GSPs in the Madera Subbasin. In the interim, DWR is not posting the GSPs for public review and is not initiating a public comment period,” states the letter with the GSAs received Monday. DWR letter to Madera GSAs

The hold out GSA in the Madera subbasin is the New Stone Water District, which covers about 4,500 acres on the western edge of the 200,000-plus-acre subbasin. The district’s board appears to be run by a single farming family, the Lions, who own Lions Raisins.

Though New Stone GSA’s spokesman Roger Skinner characterized the problem as minor, others are more concerned.

“I think the next step may be that the state sets a date for a probationary hearing,” said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of Madera County’s Department of Water and Natural Resources and it’s GSA.

Probationary status under the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act could bring harsh consequences, such as the state dictating pumping amounts and fees of $300 per well and $40 per acre foot pumped.

Water managers in several subbasins have wondered if a single hold out on coordination could throw the whole subbasin into probation.

Madera may be the test case.

There are seven GSAs in the Madera subbasin. Four of them submitted a joint groundwater plan. Those included Madera County, Madera City, Madera Irrigation District and Madera Water District. The other three GSAs, including New Stone, Gravelly Ford and Root Creek, submitted groundwater plans individually.

SGMA mandates that no matter how many plans are submitted, they must use the same data, methodology and agree on certain basics, such as water budgets — how much water is coming into the subbasin and how much is being pumped out.

New Stone believes it has 4,500 acre feet more water than the other GSAs would agree to so it refused to sign the coordinating agreement, according to Anagnoson.

Skinner agreed that is the crux of the issue.

“We had a disagreement and the other parties chose to submit (GSPs) without going any further with us,” Skinner said. “But our board president has talked with DWR about the issues and they felt it was minor and we could get it resolved.”

Anagnoson didn’t hold out much hope for a simple resolution.

“I think it is a very big deal,” she said. “We don’t have any evidence this 4,500 acre feet exists. We’ve been negotiating a coordinating agreement for a year. There’ve been a number of issues that New Stone has said were deal breakers and we’ve worked through them. Then other issues come up.”

In December, she said, New Stone representatives refused to even discuss the coordinating agreement. So the other GSAs  let DWR know they would be submitting an agreement signed by six of the seven GSAs.

“All of the agencies agreeing and signing the coordination agreement, are traditional public agencies with long experience serving the public interest. We all know how serious this is. But the way the law was written, it allows one party to put an entire basin into probation,” Anagnoson said.

Calls to the other five GSAs were not immediately returned.

The specter of state intervention through being put in probationary status has been the stick herding water managers forward on SGMA, despite often being at odds over who’s pumping more water and how much is truly being recharged.

Though SGMA doesn’t accept or fail a GSP based on its water budget, the calculation shows how badly overdrafted basins are.

In the Kern subbasin, water managers endured a public tongue lashing last October when they turned in water budgets suggesting that subbasin was only overdrafted by 85,000 acre feet a year.

The true number is closer to 350,000 acre feet a year, according to more recent calculations.

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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