State staff revealed it will be well into 2025 before all of the “inadequate” groundwater subbasins will start probationary hearings.
The state Water Resources Control Board held a meeting on Tuesday where staff discussed the tentative schedule and heard from water agencies and members of the public.
The Water Board is the enforcement arm under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Another state agency, the Department of Water Resources has been tasked with guiding groundwater agencies over the last five or more years to come up with plans to bring critically over pumped aquifers back into balance by 2040.
Six valley subbasins including the Tulare Lake, Delta-Mendota, Chowchilla, Kaweah, Tule and Kern failed to meet the state’s requirements in those plans.
All six of those valley regions submitted plans with a variety of problems, according to the state, including poor minimum groundwater levels, lack of protection for domestic wells, unaddressed subsidence, or land sinking, and an overall lack of coordination among groundwater agencies within the subbasins.
That means the Water Board could end up taking control of those subbasins and implementing its own pumping plans and fees. The first step in that process is a hearing to determine whether failed subbasins will be put on probationary status.
Tulare Lake’s hearing is first, scheduled for April 16, 2024. The Tule subbasin hearing will be in September 2024 and Kaweah in November 2024. Kern’s hearing will be in January, 2025, Delta-Mendota in the first quarter of 2025 and Chowchilla in the second quarter of 2025.
The timeline is, “not nearly as ambitious,” as originally hoped, admitted E. Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the Water Board, at the meeting. But it’s more realistic, he added.
“While we understand the need to balance thoughtful stakeholder engagement with setting timelines, we continue to ask the board to set provisionary hearings as soon as possible,” said Nataly Escobedo Garcia, policy coordinator for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, at Tuesday’s meeting. “The subbasins have now had at least three years to create plans that protect all users and uses of groundwater and have continued to fail to do so. They cannot be given additional time to submit inadequate plans that will continue to allow multiple small water systems to be dewatered.”
Despite the lengthy timeline, some water managers pleaded with the board for more time to fix groundwater plans.
“Being first up, Tulare Lake doesn’t have the extended time allowed to the other subbasins,” said Deanna Jackson, executive director for the Tri County Water GSA which has land in both Tulare Lake and Tule subbasins, during Tuesday’s meeting. “And it’s my hope that the board will consider this at the probationary hearing and allow the time necessary for the review of the revised plan before a decision on probation is reached.”
The Tulare Lake plan will be resubmitted to the state by March, Jackson told SJV Water in a later interview. She hopes the revised plan will prevent the subbasin from being put on probation which would erode confidence in stakeholders, she said.
Another cause for concern at the meeting was the “good actor” provision in the state’s groundwater law.
The provision may allow for specific groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) within failed subbasins to be exempt from probation and state intervention if those particular GSAs are in compliance with sustainability goals.
Water board members questioned state staff about this provision for further clarification, but staff were tight lipped about the specifics and seemed unsure of exactly how the good actor provision would work.
“Are we seeing folks splinter off from their GSA to create their own GSA so as to be able to qualify for the good actor clause because they are are judged unto themselves?” asked Esquivel at the meeting.
State staff said there are some agencies doing this and that staff are concerned about coordination between so many GSAs.
That has been the case in Kern County, where most members of the Kern Groundwater Authority have left to form their own GSAs or coalesce in regional groups. Those agencies are now meeting through an informal “coordination committee” outside of the Authority.
The authority, once the subbasin’s largest groundwater agency, recently acknowledged it is taking a smaller role in groundwater planning, mostly to administer state grants and work with lands outside of water district boundaries.