State water agency wades into lawsuit to maintain its authority over groundwater plans

November 18, 2022
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
by Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
The Delta-Mendota Subbasin covers a large swath of the northwestern San Joaquin Valley. A lawsuit contends that groundwater plans intended to bring overpumped aquifers in the region back into balance will not achieve their goals. SCREEN SHOT
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern

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A lawsuit over groundwater plans in the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley is being closely watched as it could have implications for how the state’s groundwater mandate moves forward, according to a recent briefing on the issue at the Kern Groundwater Authority.

At the Nov. 16 meeting, authority attorney Valerie Kincaid explained that the lawsuit, filed in 2020, seeks to have a court invalidate six groundwater plans in the Delta-Mendota Subbasin, which runs along the western edge of the valley from west of Fresno north to west of Modesto.

The Department of Water Resources filed an amicus brief in the suit, which was bought by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Kincaid explained. An amicus, or friend of the court brief, can be filed by a group that has a strong interest in a case.

“In that amicus, DWR said: ‘We don’t think that the court has the authority to review the substance of a plan for compliance with SGMA, that in fact is the job of DWR,’” Kincaid said.

DWR claimed that the Legislature did not intend for the courts to decide the validity of the plans.

Kincaid noted DWR had not addressed whether the court could intervene after DWR had decided whether a groundwater plan was adequate.

Groundwater plans are required under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and were initially filed with DWR  in 2020. Most were found incomplete and were resubmitted in July 2022 for re-evaluation, which is ongoing.

It’s unclear how the process would move forward if groups can have courts intervene before plans are fully evaluated by the state.

Groundwater sustainability plans are highly technical studies that must consider a number of variables in order to achieve SGMA’s goal of bringing overpumped aquifers into balance by 2040. That generally means more water shouldn’t be pumped out than goes back in.

But groundwater plans must also avoid certain “undesirable” results including:  chronic lowering of groundwater tables; water quality degradation; land subsidence (sinking); reduced groundwater storage; depletion of interconnected surface water (river water being sucked into a groundwater deficit, for example); and seawater intrusion.

California Sportfishing’s suit claims the six groundwater plans covering the Delta-Mendota Subbasin aren’t likely to achieve their sustainability goals.

The parties in the suit have so far not responded to the amicus brief, which DWR filed on October 27.

The court will ultimately decide whether it has the authority to assess groundwater sustainability plans, as well as whether the Delta-Mendota Subbasin’s plans should be invalidated.

Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern }

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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