State’s groundwater “cop” hands out more criticism of valley plans

November 19, 2021
by Lois Henry
The Kings River runs under Highway 99 south of Fresno. A number of groundwater agencies are relying on excess water from local rivers and streams to recharge over pumped aquifers. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Lois Henry

New Water Board comments

Kaweah subbasin

Kings subbasin

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Another set of comments critical of how San Joaquin Valley groundwater plans will impact drinking water wells dropped on Friday from the powerful State Water Resources Control Board.

The comments focused on plans that cover the City of Fresno and many surrounding towns as well as Visalia and a number of smaller towns in Tulare County. Specifically, it commented on plans covering most of the Kings and Kaweah subbasins.

One of the Kaweah plans, which covers the communities of Lindsay and Strathmore in eastern Tulare County, could result in “the dewatering over over one-third of the domestic wells throughout the subbasin,” the Water Board letter states. The East Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability justifies that impact by saying those wells would have gone dry sooner without measures implemented by the groundwater agency as a result of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

“Staff disagrees with East Kaweah GSP’s justification,” reads the Water Board letter.

Michael Hagman, East Kaweah’s manager as well as General Manager of the Lindmore Irrigation District, said East Kaweah and the subbasin’s other two groundwater agencies will be looking closely at the Water Board’s comments and hope to provide a response.

But the timing is difficult.

“(The Department of Water Resources) will be coming out next month or January with its evaluation of our GSP and, all of a sudden, we get other comments from the ultimate overseer of all water rights in California?” he said. If the comments had come three or four months ago, the agencies would have been better able to respond.

Some of the Water Board’s comments were critical of the agency’s lowest allowable groundwater levels, known as “minimum thresholds” but Hagman said the region had dropped far below those thresholds in the past so he felt that could be addressed.

“We can’t solve this all in one year,” Hagman said. “We had talked about a glide path to reduce groundwater pumping” and now farmers are dealing with two very dry years and substantial cuts to surface supplies.

The Water Board comments also noted the Central Kings plan, which covers the disadvantaged communities of Tombstone and Caruthers, could dry up between 46% and 74% of drinking water wells in those and other communities at its lower allowable groundwater level, called a “minimum threshold,” the Water Board writes.

In its letter to plan managers for the Kings subbasin, the Water Board “strongly recommends” revisiting the definition of an “undesirable result,” under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and conducting a new analysis of its minimum thresholds.

The Water Board also questioned how much “extra” water from area rivers and streams groundwater agencies in both subbasins could truly count on in heavy rainfall years as those amounts — and the rights to it —  are anything but certain.

Calls to groundwater agency managers were not returned Friday afternoon.

SGMA requires overdrafted aquifers be brought into balance by 2040. In general that means more water shouldn’t be pumped out than goes back in and that groundwater be kept at levels that won’t endanger drinking water wells, degrade water quality, or suck too much water out from beneath rivers and streams.

Friday’s comments, from the state Water Board, aren’t part of the formal review process under SGMA. Formal groundwater plan evaluations are forthcoming from the Department of Water Resources. The Water Board has ultimate enforcement authority, but only much later in the process.

Adding a bit more confusion, these new Water Board comments come on the heels of DWR recently finding four other Central Valley groundwater plans inadequate on Nov. 18. Those included plans that cover the Eastern San Joaquin, Merced, Chowchilla and Westside (Westlands Water District) subbasins.

And just to up the confusion volume even further, those DWR findings were only preliminary evaluations. It will  issue its formal findings sometime in January.

Groundwater agencies will then have six months to fix deficiencies. If the plans are still considered inadequate by DWR, the agency has the option to initiate consultation with the Water Board. If the Water Board finds a groundwater agency unwilling or unable to correct problems, it can take over a subbasin, set pumping allocations and issue fines and fees. It can even bring criminal charges, if necessary.

So, how the Water Board views groundwater plans could be significant.

This isn’t the first time the Water Board has commented on groundwater plans. It submitted comments through the DWR website last December on the Indian Wells Valley (eastern Kern County), Cuyama Valley, Santa Cruz Mid-Valley, Paso Robles Area and 180-400 Acre Foot (Monterey County) plans.

Then in late August, the water board commented on the Eastern San Joaquin, North and South Yuba, Merced, Chowchilla and Tulare Lake plans.

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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