Water district between two counties and two subbasins forges its own groundwater sustainability path

February 13, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
The Kern-Tulare Water District straddles two counties and two groundwater subbasins.
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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The small Kern-Tulare Water District moved forward recently in breaking away from two other groundwater agencies to form its own independent groundwater sustainability agency (GSA).

As the state’s historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) turns 10 this year and the 2040 deadline to bring aquifers into balance edges closer, groundwater agencies have splintered and reformed throughout the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Most notably, the Kern Groundwater Authority which initially had 16 water district members,  reorganized as most of those members have broken off to form their own, or regional GSAs.

Kern-Tulare, which covers 19,600 acres, and straddles two water subbasins and two counties, had always planned to go independent, said Kent Stephens, president of the Kern-Tulare board of directors.

“This was a natural thing that we had talked about since the inception,” he said. The district initially had been part of both the Kern Groundwater Authority and Eastern Tule GSA.

The district has become its own GSA as both the Tule and Kern subbasins are facing possible sanctions after their groundwater plans were found inadequate last year by the Department of Water Resources, the reviewing agency for SGMA.

The subbasins now face hearings at the Water Resources Control Board, SGMA’s enforcement arm. If the Water Board finds the subbasins haven’t progressed in fixing their plans, the state could restrict pumping, charge steep pumping fees and even fine water users in the basin.

With that in mind, Kern-Tulare staff are busy working on its groundwater plan.

“The bottom line is that we cross two basins and this helps us control our own destiny,” said Skye B. Grass, Kern-Tulare general manager. “We have a lot of different situations than other folks.” 

Kern-Tulare’s move toward independence wasn’t a surprise, said Mark Nordberg, DWR senior engineering geologist. 

“(GSA changes are) happening, and it’s going both ways,” he said, noting that some agencies are joining forces rather than splintering. 

“Agencies might feel that more solidification or less solidification is better,” he said. “They want a different voice at the table moving forward. We just want to make sure the governance is well organized from a formation perspective.”

What does this mean for SGMA implementation? Nordberg stressed that DWR is transitioning from reviewing groundwater plans to making sure they’re implemented. 

For those basins whose groundwater plans were approved, the focus going forward will be on SGMA’s annual reporting requirements.

“This is not a sprint, it is a marathon,” Nordberg said.

Lisa McEwen, 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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