The Madera subbasin’s groundwater plan was approved by the state on Thursday much to the surprise of water managers and others throughout the valley.
It was an unexpected win for groundwater agencies in light of the state’s rejection of six other San Joaquin Valley plans, which has put those subbasins on a trajectory for possible state action. That includes the Chowchilla subbasin, which is just to the northwest of of the Madera subbasin.
“I suspected that (Madera’s plan) might be rejected immediately, but it was not,” said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of water and natural resources for Madera County. “I was surprised and overjoyed.”
Her concerns stemmed from the refusal of one of the subbasin’s seven groundwater sustainability agencies’ (GSA) to sign on to the overall plan.
Madera Irrigation District (MID) refused to accept the plan and be in coordination with the subbasin’s other agencies. That was back in March when the plan was resubmitted to the Department of Water Resources (DWR).
MID staff felt the plan didn’t include enough accountability for other GSAs, according to a press released issued by the district in March.
Managers expected MID’s refusal to torpedo any chance of approval. All GSAs in a subbasin must be coordinated for a plan to be approved, according to tenets of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
In an unexpected turn of events, MID staff did promise the state that the irrigation district would fully implement the revised groundwater plan despite not formally adopting it. It is the only GSA that has refused to adopt a plan while still agreeing to implement it, according to DWR’s determination letter released on Thursday.
MID staff did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Still, DWR staff are concerned about MID’s outlier position.
“MID GSA’s refusal to adopt the Revised Joint (groundwater plan), but its apparent intent to implement its obligations under the Revised Joint (groundwater plan), creates a level of inconsistency and uncertainty regarding Plan implementation that continues to concern staff,” the letter reads. “However, Department staff do not believe this issue precludes an approval recommendation at this time, because various components of the overall Subbasin Plan have been and continue to be implemented and staff is not aware of any existing impediment or delay in implementation caused by these circumstances.”
The original Madera subbasin groundwater plan was rejected because of a lack of coordination between agencies, allowable groundwater levels, actions to address subsidence and plans to address depletion of interconnected surface water. The revised groundwater plan submitted in March addressed those issues, according to the state’s recent letter.
“It’s very satisfying to have something that was a good product accepted,” said Anagnoson. “Clearly the best place to be is under the jurisdiction of DWR. So we’re very happy about this.”
She referred to the six other San Joaquin Valley subbasins whose plans were deemed inadequate and must now come before the state Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of SGMA.
Those subbasins – Kern, Tule, Tulare Lake, Kaweah, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota – will be scrutinized by Water Board staff , which may recommend the state issue pumping restrictions, fines and fees, essentially taking control of the region’s groundwater.
Water Board staff has already made that recommendation for the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County. A hearing on the recommendation has been scheduled for April 16, 2024.
Hearings for the other subbasins are scheduled as:
- Tule – September 2024
- Kaweah – November 2024
- Kern – January 2024
- Delta-Mendota – first quarter 2025
- Chowchilla – second quarter 2025
SGMA, passed in 2014, mandates that overdrafted aquifers be brought back into balance by 2040. Generally, that means more water isn’t being pumped out than goes back in.