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Groundwater: Agencies react to rejection of alternative plans

Issue Date: August 7, 2019
By Christine Souza

Six regions of California that considered themselves to be managing groundwater sustainably have been informed otherwise by state officials, who rejected alternatives to preparation of groundwater sustainability plans for the regions. Three of the applicants have agreed to form groundwater sustainability agencies as required under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The remaining three—in Humboldt, Lake and Napa counties—face decisions on how to proceed.

In all, the California Department of Water Resources reviewed alternative proposals for 15 groundwater basins or subbasins, and approved nine of the proposals.

The agencies that submitted alternatives must satisfy the objectives of SGMA, and demonstrate the basin has been operating sustainably for at least 10 years or has a well-defined plan to achieve sustainability within 20 years. The law, approved in 2014, requires local agencies overseeing basins ranked as medium or high priority to develop groundwater sustainability plans or submit an alternative.

Accepted alternatives in agricultural areas include the Gilroy-Hollister Valley, the Llagas Area Basin in Santa Clara County, the Pajaro Valley in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and the Indio and Mission Creek basins in Riverside County.

Agencies overseeing the South American Basin in Sacramento County, the Sutter Basin in Sutter County and the Ojai Valley Basin in Ventura County agreed to form local groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs, before the state rejected their alternative proposals last month. But Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources, said applicants in Humboldt, Lake and Napa "have at this point not made plans to form a GSA."

Under SGMA, Merkley said, counties have the option to provide corrected data to DWR to encourage the state agency to reassess its rejection of alternatives.

"If not, within 90 days, those that had been rejected and haven't moved forward with a GSA would be out of compliance—and that is when the State Water Resources Control Board steps in and takes over," he said.

The counties that were not approved, according to DWR, have 30 days from when letters were sent in mid-July to respond with relevant information that shows that the agency overlooked anything in the original submittal. Otherwise, they must immediately form GSAs and submit groundwater sustainability plans by Jan. 31, 2022.

"As SGMA is overlaid across California, there are bound to be some growing pains," CFBF Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said, "and our hope is that DWR works collaboratively with the local agencies submitting alternative compliance documents to help them meet the regulatory challenges instead of flat-out rejecting those plans."

Gov. Newsom's agricultural liaison, Bill Lyons, visited with local officials and county Farm Bureaus in each of the counties without GSAs, to provide information and discuss the current options and the consequences of inaction.

"The goal is to try to work through SGMA," Lyons said, adding that he had had "excellent interaction and conversation" with people who would be directly affected by the DWR decisions. Lyons said DWR is "committed to a good working relationship" with the agencies overseeing the affected basins.

In the case of Humboldt County, Merkley said, the DWR evaluation of the alternative for the Eel River Valley Basin may have been based on models and assessments that do not accurately reflect what is happening on the ground in the county. He said the county has the opportunity to present information that could move the basin to approved or possibly exempt status. In a scoring system used by DWR, Merkley said, the basin narrowly missed an exempt "low priority basin" classification by about half a point.

For the Big Valley Basin in Lake County, Merkley said, officials will draft a resolution to be brought before the county board of supervisors to establish a GSA. Humboldt County will likely do the same if it is not able to move its basin into approved status.

Napa County faces a different situation, Merkley said.

The county provided information and an alternative proposal asserting that it has managed the Napa Valley Subbasin sustainably.

But in a July 17 letter to Napa County, DWR rejected the county's alternative proposal. The department did not conclude the subbasin has been managed unsustainably, but said it found insufficient evidence the county had managed the subbasin within its sustainable yield for at least 10 years.

Napa County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said he believes the county has done an excellent job managing its groundwater sustainably, so there is no need to create a GSA.

"With as successful as Napa County has been with managing its groundwater, it's completely unnecessary to have the State Water Resources Control Board come in and take over," Klobas said. "The county has 30 days to respond and will submit its appeal, and we would hope that the county would be successful."

Basins with approved alternatives are required to continue implementing their plans and provide annual reporting and five-year updates on their progress.

"At bottom, the spirit of SGMA really is local management of groundwater resources, and the law recognizes this by making local governance and management the preferred outcome," CFBF attorney Scheuring said. "The state water board should not be in the business of managing local groundwater basins except in extraordinary circumstances."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Ag Alert editor Dave Kranz contributed to this story.)

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

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