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Agencies working to sustain groundwater

Issue Date: February 23, 2022
By Christine Souza
Water from Millerton Lake enters a groundwater recharge facility near Lindsay to help local agencies bring the critically overdrafted Kaweah subbasin into balance. Lindmore Irrigation District estimates that 6,500 acre-feet has been percolated into the ground there since 2017.
Photo/Christine Souza
Tulare County citrus farm manager Matt Watkins, an agricultural stakeholder on local groundwater agencies, said recharge basins such as in Lindsay will help balance groundwater supplies.
Photo/Christine Souza

A new era of groundwater management in California continues to take shape as local agencies develop and implement plans that identify how they intend to achieve groundwater sustainability goals over the next 20 years.

"The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, if you haven't heard about it, it's knocking on your door and will soon be pretty much a part of your life if you're trying to farm," said Cordie Qualle, professional engineer and faculty fellow at California State University, Fresno.

At a recent groundwater seminar at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Qualle said, "that (regulation) basically says that groundwater basins, which are large geographic areas that have been defined by the state, need to balance their water use. They need to balance their intake and their outtake to maintain a stable groundwater level."

As required under SGMA, groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs, must develop local plans that guide management decisions affecting groundwater use in basins and subbasins classified by the state as critically overdrafted, or medium or high priority.

"We've been given 20 years to get into sustainability," said Matt Watkins, farm manager for Bee Sweet Citrus and vice president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. "Hopefully, instead of being cut off from day one, we've come up with a plan that's not just shutting the water off but (is) going to 90%, 80% by ramping down gradually.

"Maybe we sink more surface water or flood-release water into the ground, those sorts of things," he said.

Watkins, who serves as an agricultural stakeholder on East Kaweah and Eastern Tule groundwater sustainability agencies, said both must "dial down details of the plans" and show how long-term aquifer health will be achieved.

To prepare for plan implementation, Watkins said, the two agencies are working on a water allocation and accounting framework, which he said could mean increased costs to growers for pumping groundwater.

Lindmore Irrigation District, a federal water contractor in the Friant Division with a Class 1 and Class 2 water contract, is part of the East Kaweah GSA, which is located in a subbasin in critical overdraft.

Lindmore Irrigation District general manager Michael Hagman, who is executive director for the East Kaweah agency, said "SGMA is sort of the compulsory approach to determining what harms your neighbor. The plans tell us what we will do to not harm our neighbor and become sustainable."

Since 2007, Hagman said, the region has received only about 80% of normal precipitation. Coupled with several severe dry years, that depleted surface water supplies and reduced groundwater inflow.

"We're not sustainable in this subbasin the way we're acting now, and primarily it's a function of farming beyond the capacity of the groundwater inflow," Hagman said. "About 20% of our problem is people to our west began farming ground that wasn't being farmed before, but 80% of our problem is overdraft."

East Kaweah GSA's groundwater sustainability plan, which was submitted to the California Department of Water Resources by Jan. 31, includes ways to add more water such as groundwater recharge projects and includes management actions such as reducing groundwater pumping or fallowing land.

To help replenish groundwater in the subbasin, the district in 2016 constructed a groundwater recharge basin near Lindsay, which recharges the subbasin with any excess surface water supplies from Millerton Lake via the Friant-Kern Canal.

The recharge basin holds 23 acre-feet and has a percolation rate of one-third of a foot per acre. The district plans to construct several other groundwater recharge basins on 320 acres near Lindsey, Hagman said. The new project will be able to percolate 80 acre-feet per day into the ground.

"Hopefully, this is one of the tools to put the East Kaweah GSA into sustainability going forward," Watkins said.

East Kaweah added emergency restrictions on groundwater pumping last October and set a maximum allocation and a fine of $500 per acre-foot for those who exceed the pumping restriction, Hagman said. The state declared the East Kaweah plan as incomplete, and Hagman said the agency and others are working to resolve issues identified by the state.

Paige Gilligan, a risk management consultant for Risk Mitigators & Advisors in Clovis, who took part in a groundwater seminar at the World Ag Expo, said local agencies submitted 112 groundwater sustainability plans to DWR. State water officials can designate plans as approved, incomplete or inadequate.

Of the total plans submitted, 70 plans for medium- and high-priority basins, which were due Jan. 1, are under review; 34 plans are classified as incomplete; and eight plans were approved. Incomplete plans must have issues resolved by July 2022 or trigger management intervention by the State Water Resources Control Board.

"Agencies have 180 days to look at all of these revisions, and people are going to be scrambling and working together to do so," Gilligan said. "Until July, it's probably going to be pretty crazy in the water space."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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