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For groundwater, local management proves effective

Issue Date: August 6, 2014
By Christine Souza

As the state Legislature considers statewide groundwater legislation in the midst of a severe drought, water agencies and water users say local groundwater management has yielded sustainable and positive results.

"Recent discussions may have left people with the impression that California has no groundwater management, but dozens of local and regional plans are in place and work well," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources.

Current law enables local entities or agencies to implement their own groundwater basin management solutions and strategies. Local management falls into three main categories: special act districts, created through an act of legislation; county groundwater ordinances adopted by local agencies; and court adjudications, where groundwater rights are determined by a court.

For example, the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District—a special act district—has collected groundwater data since it was formed more than 60 years ago. Special act districts operate under different rules and processes, based on local needs. The Yolo County district was formed at the request of county supervisors and created by the Legislature with the purpose of finding new water sources and managing them efficiently.

Tim O'Halloran, general manager for the district, said its data collection efforts give well owners "a snapshot twice a year of how their groundwater is doing, a trend over time," which allows development of sophisticated, conjunctive water programs that assure sustainable groundwater use.

Effective groundwater management comes from working through the issues collaboratively and locally, he said.

"If an outsider comes in and takes the data, by the time it is processed, it may or may not make sense and they won't have the context to evaluate the data," O'Halloran said.

Another special act district, the Sierra Valley Groundwater Management District, was established in 1980 after irrigators became concerned about increased drilling of new wells.

Jim Roberti, a director of the Sierraville-based district, said the district was established to prevent export of water.

"The major goal of the forming of the district has been achieved and the water has been allowed to stay in the valley for the people that live here," he said.

Roberti said landowners are required to purchase a meter for any wells with a flow rate of more than 100 gallons per minute. The district owns and maintains the meters, with data collected monthly.

Management of aquifers is also achieved through the use of local groundwater ordinances adopted by local agencies.

The Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation was formed in 1999.

"Butte County started this county water and natural resource department because there were transfers taking place and the residents felt there should be a little more oversight, so the county passed an initiative that restricts transferring surface water and pumping groundwater," said Les Heringer, farm manager at M&T Ranch in Chico. "Since the county started this, it has functioned very well."

Paul Gosselin, the director of the county department, said Butte County has more than one ordinance that guides groundwater, such as a groundwater management plan and a well-spacing ordinance to ensure that agricultural wells do not interfere with each other.

"It is pretty complex with groundwater flows, surface water flows and the interaction with surface and groundwater, and then how much land use affects either surface-water use or groundwater use," Gosselin said.

Butte County has a network of wells that are monitored quarterly, plus additional wells dedicated for groundwater monitoring, with data reported publicly. Landowner volunteers are asked to assist with groundwater monitoring.

"We've had extraordinary involvement and public participation and willingness by landowners to do monitoring and help study the basin," Gosselin said. "The people at the local level did this from the grassroots up because of their understanding and appreciation of the importance of groundwater and what that means for the community, agriculture and the environment."

A third form of groundwater management is through court adjudication, in which groundwater rights are determined by a court, including how much groundwater well owners can extract and who serves as watermaster to ensure the basin is managed.

John Martin, general manager of the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District in Tehachapi, said the district has three adjudicated basins.

"Because of the fact that the groundwater is limited and the safe yield is very small, we have an informal arrangement with the farmers that they don't take more than half of their total water needs from the ground and that they get at least half from our (surface) water supply," Martin said. "They have been complying with that for quite a number of years and by doing that, the basin is staying well below the court-determined safe yield."

The Tehachapi-Cummings district, which acts as the court-appointed watermaster, meters agricultural wells that take monthly readings and groundwater elevations, and people are notified when the supply is getting out of balance.

Merkley said Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations have been urging the Legislature to move deliberately in considering statewide groundwater legislation. He noted that some groundwater basins face supply-demand challenges, but that examples of successful local programs could "provide a path for others to follow" in coming years.

"The complexities of groundwater, groundwater management and interactions with surface water are simply too great to rush to complete an isolated solution," he said. "We recommend a carefully thought-through process to develop appropriate protections of our groundwater resources for future generations."

Butte County farmer Heringer put it this way: "One size does not fit all in this state regarding groundwater. Every groundwater basin is different in the state, so local oversight is much better than having somebody from the state come in and tell us how to manage it."

(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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