Groundwater: Local agencies work toward sustainability


Issue Date: February 13, 2019
By Christine Souza

Farmers, water managers and government agencies agree: Groundwater sustainability is critical for California. But achieving it could bring significant changes to the state's agricultural landscape, according to speakers at a Sacramento gathering of water professionals.

Under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, known as SGMA, groundwater sustainability plans must be developed by early next year for critically overdrafted basins, and by 2022 for other high- and medium-priority basins. Those plans, to be prepared by local groundwater sustainability agencies, must show how sustainability will be achieved within 20 years of their completion.

California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said now that the local agencies have been established and basins prioritized, the agencies are moving forward with the technical and costly work of developing their sustainability plans.

During the California Irrigation Institute conference in Sacramento last week, Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, called SGMA "the most significant change in water management in 100 years in California," and described it as "an enormous burden that will likely divert 2 million acre-feet of water from the state's agricultural water supply. "

"It's going to cause cropping changes in the state where we could have potentially 600,000 to 800,000 acres of farmland go out of production," Wade said.

Jarrett Martin, deputy general manager for the Central California Irrigation District in Los Banos, described the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Groundwater Sustainability Agency, one of the GSAs working to develop plans for the critically overdrafted Delta-Mendota Sub-basin.

The exchange contractors' GSA has worked with 22 other GSAs involved in the sub-basin, on a coordination agreement that defines how water data and methodology will be used to develop a groundwater sustainability plan. Related to GSP development, Martin said basin water data has been collected since the 1950s and will help inform the plan, or water budget.

"If we go down a path and try to make this more complicated, we're just asking for problems," he said. "We're doing a non-numerical water model, a spreadsheet-type model: Take your knowns—surface water supply and consumptive use of crops—and those two things make up a significant portion of your water balance."

Martin said CCID and the exchange contractors have had a long working relationship with cities that also draw water from the sub-basin, suggesting that other agencies working on GSPs build trust with cities and others involved in the process.

"Once you've developed trust, then you can start to make progress," Martin said. "Cities have turned over their implementation and development of the GSP to us. It's really a continuation of our historical practices, but it's really laying the tracks for a long-term strategy that is going to be sustainable."

Mary Fahey, water resources manager for Colusa County and program manager for the Colusa Groundwater Authority, said the Sacramento Valley groundwater basin provides about 30 percent of the region's water in a normal year. It stretches from Red Bluff to Rio Vista, with no critically overdrafted basins.

"We started out with about 17 GSAs, overlapping GSAs, and no one was really coordinating," Fahey said. "It ended up with two multi-agency joint powers authority GSAs in the basin."

She said that the GSAs are working together on a single groundwater sustainability plan and expect to have it completed by the 2022 deadline.

"We are hoping as we go along developing our GSP that we can learn from those who have plans in place in 2020. The other thing we are working on is figuring out how we are going to finance this whole effort," Fahey said.

Noting that "there are many unknowns in GSP development," she described challenges to the process that include: funding agency operations; working out technical issues; political challenges, now that the entity is basically an enforcement agency; and increasing landowner engagement.

"What's working for us is the multi-agency approach, pooling our resources, pooling our expertise and really working together," Fahey said. "We have good coordination efforts in the Sacramento Valley and DWR (the state Department of Water Resources) has offered assistance and we've taken advantage of all of this—grant funding and facilitation support services."

She also discussed the Butte, Sutter and Yolo sub-basins, noting that each is approaching its sustainability-plan development differently, with Butte County coordinating the basin's SGMA efforts, Sutter submitting an alternative compliance plan and Yolo working early in the process to develop a multi-agency GSA.

Dan Dooley, a principal in the Fresno-based consulting firm New Current Water and Land, said the company is monitoring 70 GSAs across the state.

"We see, particularly in the major overdrafted basins, that coordination among and between GSAs and neighboring sub-basins is flimsy at best," Dooley said, adding that key issues include disagreements over modeling and data.

Fresno County farmer Don Cameron, who chairs the State Board of Food and Agriculture, received the CII Irrigation Person of the Year Award for his contributions to the study of groundwater recharge.

"I think the next 20 years will be really challenging," Cameron said in accepting the award. "There's talk of anywhere from a half a million to a million acres of land coming out of production in the San Joaquin Valley."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.