State rejects six San Joaquin Valley groundwater plans, which could bring enforcement action

March 2, 2023
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
A graphic shows the timeline from when a groundwater plan is found "inadequate" to potential enforcement action by the state Water Resources Control Board. Note the asterisk: "Board has discretion" meaning there is no timeline for when the board will take action. SOURCE: DWR press briefing
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water

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Six San Joaquin Valley groundwater agencies learned Thursday they could be subject to state enforcement action if they don’t redo plans to bring their aquifers back into balance.

In its final determinations, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) said the inadequate plans either didn’t do enough to protect water quality, allowed for too much continued subsidence, set groundwater levels too low or some combination of the above. 

The plans for the Kern, Kaweah, Chowchilla, Tule, Tulare Lake (Kings County) and Delta-Mendota subbasins were rejectd by DWR and have now been sent to the State Water Resources Control Board for possible enforcement action. 

It’s unclear what the exact “next steps” for those subbains will be. 

Natalie Stork, a supervising engineer with the Water Board, said the board will begin evaluating plans and decide whether to hold “probation” hearings at some point in the future. There is no timeline for how long that may take.

If a subbasin goes into probation, state regulators could set pumping limits and charge hefty fines and fees under an interim plan.

During the board’s evaluation period, groundwater agencies in each subbasin will be working on plan revisions that could bring them out of the enforcement realm.

She didn’t give any specific deadlines. But the goal, she said, is for local agencies to resolve problems and take subbasins out of state oversight.

For groundwater agencies in Kern, Thursday’s action was significant but should not derail efforts already underway to balance the aquifer, said Dan Bartel, General Manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, a member of the larger Kern Groundwater Authority.

“I appreciate that DWR and the state board are very consistent in telling us to keep implementing your plans for demand reduction, groundwater monitoring and recharge,” Bartel said. “There was no call to wholesale stop what we’re currently doing.”

He said the Kern subbasin has come a long way over the past five years as it has slogged through the complicated process of accounting for groundwater use and finding ways to curtail pumping and put more water in the ground.

“The question is whether the basin can come together and continue all the work we’ve been doing and completely address the deficiencies in our plans that were listed by DWR,” he said.

DWR’s final evaluation of the Kern plan found that agencies within the basin weren’t all using the same methodologies and had set their rock-bottom allowable groundwater lines – called “minimum thresholds” – at significantly different levels. 

Semitropic Water Storage District, for instance, set its minimum thresholds, in some areas, more than 200 feet below those of its neighboring districts. 

That’s a no-no under SGMA, which requires coordination to bring the entire subbasin into balance.

In the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County, DWR staff noted continued subsidence had already exceeded the allowable amounts listed in that region’s plan. Subsidence has been an ongoing problem around the Corcoran area of Kings County for years as intensive groundwater pumping has caused the land to collapse over a wide area known as the “Corcoran bowl.”

The Tulare Lake plan also, apparently, allows an upper zone in the aquifer to be “depleted” with no mention of how groundwater agencies would repair or replace the attendant dry wells, according to the DWR evaluation.

Considering the vague and potentially lengthy timeline for enforcement action by the state Water Board, it’s unclear what recourse water users have if groundwater plans allow water tables to drop too low. Last year, more than 1,000 domestic wells were reported going dry.

“We’re asking that the State Water Board move as as quickly as possible,” said Nataly Escobedo-Garcia, policy coordinator for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “This is pretty urgent that we get moving to this next step.” 

Some groundwater agencies, though, are hoping to avoid enforcement by addressing problems quickly.

“We’re obviously very disappointed,” said Sarah Woolf, manager of Triangle T groundwater sustainability agency, part of the Chowchilla subbasin. “But we are committed to working through the process and figuring out what we need to do to address the deficiencies that they outlined.”

Woolf said she is working as fast as possible on these issues and is hopeful that deficiencies can be corrected before state intervention becomes a reality. 

DWR also recommended several valley plans for approval including those covering the Merced, Kings (Fresno County) and Westside (Westlands Water District) subbasins. A final evaluation of the Madera subbasin plan is expected out at the end of this month

Those plans were approved even though none are “perfect” and will require continued tweaks throughout the years, said Paul Gosselin, Deputy Director of the DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Division.

Groundwater agencies with approved plans still have to file annual water accounting updates and go through reviews every five years on the way to aquifer balance by SGMA’s deadline of 2040.

“This is really just one step in the process,” agreed  Leadership Counsel’s Escobedo-Garcia. “We are still a long way away until we actually are on a path to sustainability.”

Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, 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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