Local agencies file management plans for aquifers

Issue Date: February 5, 2020
By Christine Souza

The deadline passed at the end of January for local agencies representing 19 of the state's most stressed groundwater basins to submit plans for how the basins will reach sustainability during the next 20 years. It's a milestone in implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Speaking during the annual California Irrigation Institute conference in Sacramento last week, Tim Godwin of the California Department of Water Resources said the department is now reviewing the submitted plans. DWR will ultimately grade the plans as adequate; incomplete, which gives agencies 180 days to submit clarifying information; or inadequate, which requires DWR to consult with the State Water Resources Control Board on next steps.

Agencies overseeing critically overdrafted basins had to file groundwater sustainability plans by Jan. 31. Remaining high- and medium-priority basins have until 2022 to submit plans and are required to reach sustainability by 2042.

Speaking on SGMA implementation, David Orth of Fresno-based New Current Water and Land, which is monitoring more than 60 local agencies for clients in more than 40 sub-basins, estimated almost 7 million acres will be subject to what he called "this significant planning exercise that's underway."

"The expectation is that (groundwater sustainability agencies) are going to be given some latitude within the corners of the law to figure out how to do this and maintain local management," Orth said. "We need time to fill the data gaps. The data's going to change over the next 20 years, and we're going to be able to use the next full 20-year period to achieve sustainability."

Talking about strategies for SGMA implementation, Derrik Williams, a hydrogeologist with the Paso Robles office of Montgomery & Associates, said, "SGMA doesn't have to be the end of the world; it might be a stop along the way, but we are able to get to sustainability with different ideas."

Even with all the constraints, he said, groundwater sustainability plans have a number of options in them.

"Admittedly, some of them might be a little more realistic than others, but it's a supply and demand problem," Williams said. "To get to sustainability, you really only have two options: reducing your demand or increasing your supply."

With a limited supply of groundwater, he said, themes for critically overdrafted basins to balance groundwater without access to additional imported water include use of recycled water and working regionally to transfer water.

"Numbers in hydrology change all the time, so you are going to be better off to get everybody into a room to agree on what the structure is and how to divide pumping based on land use, based on historical cropping patterns, whatever it is," Williams said.

Speakers also described how SGMA implementation will affect California communities.

California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade spoke of the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint, a collaborative effort by agricultural organizations, water agencies and other groups working to build a resilient water future for the state.

"The decisions and changes that we make in water management have a real effect on people throughout California," Wade said. "When we reduce water deliveries and we reduce farm activity and food production, the people that bear the brunt are the farmworker community and small businesses in small towns."

He described preliminary results from a study by University of California, Berkeley, economist David Sunding that analyzes the potential impact of SGMA on the San Joaquin Valley under the current water management path. The study indicates as many as 85,000 full-time jobs and $2.1 billion in employee wages would be lost as a result of reduced groundwater and surface water availability, Wade said.

Without significant changes in the current statewide approach to water management, the report concludes, up to 1 million acres of productive farmland would be permanently fallowed in the San Joaquin Valley—one-fifth of all acres under cultivation in the region. Farm revenue loss associated with fallowing would be $7.2 billion per year, Wade said.

"We're looking at about 2.4 million acre-feet in consumptive use reduction in the San Joaquin Valley as a result of groundwater supply changes and surface water supply potential changes," he said.

At the conference, State Water Resources Control Board member Sean Maguire discussed Gov. Gavin Newsom's draft Water Resilience Portfolio, released in January, which describes a plan to balance the state's water needs including safe drinking water, flood protection, groundwater aquifers, water supply uncertainty for agriculture, and native fish populations.

"When we're talking about maintaining and diversifying water supplies, that means that we're looking not just at water quantity as we meet the challenges with SGMA, but also water quality," Maguire said. "We are looking at other tools to be able to look at instream flow needs on a more comprehensive and holistic basis and find meaningful solutions to all of these uses."

Groundwater sustainability plans submitted to DWR will be posted at sgma.water.ca.gov/portal/gsp/all. Public comment on the plans closes April 15.

(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.

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