Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Water oversight hearing on groundwater, part 3: Successes and challenges

On March 18, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water held an informational oversight hearing on groundwater.  In this installment of coverage from the hearing, Jay Jasperse from the Sonoma County Water Agency, Lynn Maulhardt from the United Water Conservation District & Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, and Sarge Green from Fresno State’s California Water Institute discuss the successes and challenges of managing groundwater in their respective regions.

Jay Jasperse, Sonoma County Water Agency

Jay Jasperse began by stating he was the Chief Engineer for the Sonoma County Water Agency, a special district whose operations span three counties in the north Bay Area region.  “In addition to our core responsibilities of wholesale water supply, flood control, and wastewater, we are the lead agency in two groundwater management programs,” he said.  “In Sonoma County, groundwater is one of two primary water supplies for urban and rural agricultural water users, the other source being the Russian River system.  Groundwater also significantly plays an important role in supporting habitat for sensitive ecosystems.”

Similar to other coastal areas, our groundwater basins are relatively small as compared to the Central Valley or Southern California,” he said.  “However, they are geologically very complex.  Sonoma County itself is a relatively large county.  There are 14 groundwater basins identified within the county per Bulletin 118.  Each one of these basins has a distinct hydrogeology and land use so there’s a different story to tell in each one of those.  In general, our region has experienced impacts to groundwater resources similar to many other areas across the state such as declining groundwater levels and impairment to water quality.  These have led, over the years, to conflict and sometimes litigation between different parties of interest.”

GW Hearing JasperseSince 2000, the water agency has teamed up with the USGS to conduct scientific and technical studies on the four largest groundwater basins, with three of those being completed, and the fourth just beginning, he said.  “In two of the basins where we’ve conducted these technical studies, the water agency engaged the Center for Collaborative Policy to conduct stakeholder assessments of residents and stakeholders within each of these basins,” said Mr. Jasperse.  “We wanted to better understand and gauge the level of interest and understanding about groundwater issues, and we also wanted to learn how well groundwater management is understood by the community and assess whether there was community support for moving forward with some form of groundwater management.  In both cases, we heard loud and clear from stakeholders that there was significant interest and concern about groundwater, and people felt that groundwater management should be locally driven, voluntary and collaborative.”

Based on this input, the water agency decided to move forward with developing groundwater management plans for the Sonoma Valley Basin and the Santa Rosa Plain, he said.  “For the Sonoma Basin, a stakeholder basin advisory panel was formed and they developed an AB 3030 –SB 1938 plan that was completed in 2007, and we’ve been implementing it since that time.  In the Santa Rosa Plain, we’ve been working with 32 stakeholders in a basin advisory panel for a similar type of groundwater management plan.  We’ve been working together since December of 2012, and we anticipate completion of a plan this summer.”

Mr. Jasperse then detailed a few of the agency’s successes.  “One area of success is that we’ve built a vibrant stakeholder participation process, what I call a stakeholder infrastructure, and this has resulted in a wide range of constituencies who would never be at the same table in some cases that are now working together,” he said.  “Not only that they are well educated on groundwater, but also overall water issues.  And our constituencies include stakeholders representing urban, rural residential, business, municipal, environmental, tribal, and agricultural interests.  This has resulted in groundwater management programs really being community-based forums for integrated water resources management planning, because we really don’t just look at groundwater, we look at surface water, we look at conservation, recycled water, etc, and how to put the pieces together in developing portfolios and manage sustainably.”

Climate change adaptation is now being incorporated into the planning, he said.    “We’re in various stages of implementation of conservation programs, stormwater recharge, recycled water, and groundwater banking programs that are targeted to help meet basin management objectives.”

They faced several physical, organizational, and political challenges, he said.  “First, despite our efforts, in some areas, we are seeing continued groundwater level declines and saline water intrusion,” he said.  “This has not been caused by the drought but it’s been exacerbated by the drought.  And these stressors are really challenging our voluntary approach.  We’re now having to ask whether we need to look at other approaches to management such as land use, or regulatory strategies to really more aggressively some of these areas where we’re seeing groundwater impairment.  Will this threaten the collaboration that we’ve put together across this array of constituencies? In the next year, locally, we’re embarking on a process to really try to keep that process together and up our game in some of these areas.”

Funding is also a challenge, he said.  “Although we’ve been able to receive state funding to support some of our projects, it takes significant local investment to implement these projects on an ongoing basis,” Mr. Jasperse said.  “To date, most of the available funding has been through water rates paid by urban users, yet most of the groundwater users are rural residential and agriculture, which is also there most of the areas where groundwater is impaired is.  Recently some of our urban stakeholders have stated they are unwilling to continue funding groundwater management programs unless these other agricultural, rural and other interest groups also start to contribute funding to the projects and the programs.  So we’ve been working in recent months to increase the funding from these other sectors, but it’s really difficult in many cases because agriculture and rural residential in our areas are not really centrally organized and you’re dealing with hundreds and thousands of independent operators.  This is a huge problem for us, not only in terms of funding but also working with these constituencies to manage groundwater, since they are the largest user group.”

Lynn Maulhardt, United Water Conservation District

Lynn Maulhardt began by discussing the region’s successes. “If you look at Ventura County, we have a 94 year history of dealing with this issue, that goes back to the 1920s,” he said, noting that his grandfather was involved in it.  “In 1927, the first water conservation district was built; water was diverted, and we returned to artesian conditions because the fundamental problem in all of this discussion is that demand exceeds supply.”

He noted that his written testimony talks more about the history.  “That history says that over time each generation has stepped up to figure out how to offset that imbalance,” he said.  “We’ve done three things that I think are worth talking about.  First, we created the Santa Felicia Dam which now is a storage-release dam.  The fundamental concept of in the wet seasons, collect the water and store it for the dry seasons is exactly the purpose of that dam, and that dam has served us well.  That water also serves two major pipelines to the M&I folks through the Oxnard-Hueneme Line into the Base and into a depressed pumping area which is very inland from the coast, but has a huge impact on the coast, so we have surface deliveries.”

GW Hearing MaulhardtFollowing World War II, the city has exploded in population, he said, noting that in 1940, the population of Oxanrd was 800, and today Oxnard is the 20th largest city in the state with almost 200,000 people.  “The demand on the system is both ag and M&I, and the M&I and ag folks came together to build that dam,” he said.  “In the mid 70s, the state, applying leverage to what we were doing in Ventura County resulted in three additional projects: the creation of the Vern Freeman Diversion Facility, the creation of the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, and the pumping trough pipeline, all facilities designed to mitigate the problem.”

When the Vern Freeman diversion was built, prior to that, all our analysis on what we were doing in our county in terms of the technical expertise was dependent upon a USGS regional study, and that study said that our safe yield was 125,000 acre-feet.  Our current pumping was 160,000 acre-feet.  The Groundwater Management Agency took a whole series of rules and regulations and we pulled the pumping from 160,000 acre-feet down to 125,00 acre-feet and hit that at around the 2008-2007 time frame meeting our objective.”

I was concerned that we did not have the technical groundwater expertise to really manage our aquifer, so we spent a lot of money and a lot of time and we have generated a world class groundwater department that has technology that I think beats a whole lot of groundwater departments in the state of California,” said Mr. Maulhardt. “ We have an MIT PhD who is trained in water models that’s running 22 computers at night, crunching the numbers for us.  Our department told us the USGS was wrong.  The safe yield is not 125,000 acre-feet; the safe-yield is 100,000 acre-feet, and that’s the problem that we have today.”

When you look at our successes over time, every generation has stood up and come together and put in systems to try to solve the problem, and then some of that is based on assumptions, and then we find out those assumptions are wrong,” he said.  “We’re not running from the issue; I’m not hiding from the issue, I’m telling you straight up, we’re upside down right now, about 25,000 – 30,000 acre-feet and we’ve got to make that bridge.  That’s our challenge.”

There are really four challenges, he said.  “One is acceptance – with that, we really do have a problem and we’re not totally through  that problem yet.  It’s also money, it’s a balance, and it’s time.  One of the biggest problems we have is that some growers are so far ahead of the game in dealing with their water usage that they are using electronic devices that actually squirt the amount of water into a plant and that plant is monitored 24/7 on high-production, high-value crops, and on the other end of the scale, we have growers are still maybe five, ten years behind because the cost of doing that is incredibly outrageous.

United Water Conservation District is facing $250-300 million worth of fees to rebuild, reconstruct our facilities to meet federal and state mandates that have come down as a result of ESA and others, but not one single new drop of water is produced out of that kind of money that’s being pulled out of the local economy,” said Mr. Maulhardt.  “On top of that, to solve that 25,000 acre-foot spread that we’re upside down on now, is going to cost another $200 million.  So what you have right now in Ventura County is a potential bill of a half a billion dollars to protect the existing system that we put in place over 94 years and to solve the problem going forward in the future.”

Ventura County today has the tenth largest economic crop value in the U.S. in counties,” he said.  “That’s a huge number.  So when we talk about a 20% cutback, in theory, you’re pulling $400 million out of that economic engine which is the biggest industry in Ventura County.  On top of the $400 million of expenses you’re going to put into the system to save what we have.  That’s an $800 million hurdle that we have to get ourselves through.”

I’ve heard discussion about recording water pumping,” he said.  “We’ve been doing that for a long time.  That will not solve the problem because people game the numbers they report to the state.  So the GMA put in meters, then we put in another ordinance that says the meters have to be tested.  We’re very close to passing an ordinance that says we’re going to do an audit of those meters because it’s a self-reporting process.  All of these things are part of the process it takes to run a very sophisticated groundwater management agency, and that’s what we’re doing at the GMA and it’s not easy.”

“Those are our challenges and those are our successes,” Mr. Maulhardt said.  “We’re going to try to do what we’ve done for the last 94 years and solve it on our own, and we’re working hard to do it.”

Sarge Green, California Water Institute

Sarge Green has been working for about a year as a facilitator for Stanislaus County, which is experiencing groundwater issues due to newly irrigated areas in eastern Stanislaus County where permanent crops are being planted on what used to be rangeland.

This precipitated the County reactivating a process of adopting a new ordinance for groundwater,” he said.  “They started it about 5 years ago, and the water agencies and others objected to it so it languished for four years, but it was reactivated in the middle of 2012 when it came to light that someone was proposing to export groundwater out of the county.”

GW Hearing GreenThe county then reactivated the process of developing the ordinance, and it ran into a brick wall again for a couple of reasons,” he said.  “One was that the draft also added the potential of regulating surface water exports which were then replaced with groundwater out of the County, so that draft and that process was stopped.  The County said time out, and under the leadership of the Board of Supervisors, they decided to open up a more collaborative process and that’s why they brought me in to delve into how to move the ordinance forward.”

So the entire community became involved in an ad hoc group, he said.  “We had several reports that came out.  One was on the districts that were already managing the groundwater, they are under AB 3030 SB 1938 plans, and yet they still didn’t want an ordinance.  There were some real problems.  But the County said, but an ordinance is on the table so let’s work this out.  The testimony and the information that we received during these things then framed the concepts that we needed in an ordinance and lo and behold we had an ordinance with tacit approval in six months which was then adopted in October of 2013.”

There are three core elements, he said.  “One is that is they do have an prohibition on exported groundwater out of the County, and because of the interest in the water community and the issues on the east side, I believe they’ve become the first county to add the prohibition of mining of groundwater within a County.  The third important part was that this partnership that the County is offering.  The County covers a lot of the open space with individual well pumpers and dormant districts that then need to be part of the overall groundwater management process and they have committed themselves to become part and parcel of the other groundwater management plans.”

You can do exports but it’s not de facto because you have to have a permit,” he said.  “So that’s the concept, use a permit, so if it’s not against the public interest, you can export or you can mine groundwater, but heaven forbid if we had a crisis of that proportion where somebody’s allowed to overextract to that extent.”

There are three tools that the County has now for managing groundwater.  “One is the permit that was previously mentioned; the permit itself, for well drilling is the gate keeper to groundwater extraction,” he said.  “sAnd if that permit can be constructed properly, it can also ask for other information that may be necessary to good groundwater management – measurement and monitoring are some of the alternatives.  The second is that they have land use authority.  They have both the state law and the responsibility to protect things like groundwater recharge areas that are already mapped in that County and conditional use permits that could impact siting of things that could impact water supply or groundwater quality.  The third is the fact that they are not a full partner in the groundwater management businesses but that they have made that commitment to do so.”

All the transactions, whether it’s outside transfers of federal contract water or whether it’s conserved water from irrigation districts, those can all be brought to light in a universal equation by the County acting as a facilitator, so more information to come about how those things work and how they impact groundwater,” Mr. Green concluded.

Discussion highlights

During the discussion period, panelists discussed funding issues and how to collect groundwater data.

Lynn Maulhardt: “I need to define the term ‘do it alone’.  Do it alone for me means the local entities will come together and figure out what the solutions are, what the capital improvements have to be, where that water will flow, all those things.  There’s no question we’re going to need federal and state funding; we’ve used federal and state funding …  we have used the funding mechanisms that government supplies and we’ll use those again.  In terms of the mechanics of funding, the bulk of what we deal with in our area is by pump charges.  And that’s one of the challenges of Prop 218; Prop 13, prop this and prop that, and trying to balance our needs.  One of our legislative tools … as you well know we have a state constitutional law that defines how water conservation districts charge their fees, that is in conflict with Prop 218 and we’re fighting that litigation in the appellate court right now.  That is a huge burden on our back, so through the pump charge mechanism and through the state government, whatever area we can get grants and loans to work our way out of this problem, but it is a big hurdle.”

Sarge Green: “Fresno State has a water technology center and a hydraulics laboratory and an incubator for technology companies in water.  I think the future is going to be measurement and monitoring will be very remotely handled so unless it’s a hammer or a shotgun, I think we’ll have the ability to get data fairly cheaply.  The problem usually is a stranded asset.  That is if you made a significant investment in something already, it’s very difficult to turn around and purchase a whole new system.”

Jay Jasperse: “In our region, the primary data we collect is water level monitoring,”   said Jay Jasperse.  It’s voluntary.  We’ve gone in one of our basins from 20 wells to over 150 wells that are self-monitored, and we’ve developed a data base that has different levels of security.  The data owner has to release it and give authority to two subsequent levels of viewing and the data is presented in a more generalized picture yet still meaningful to managers at those levels of security.”

Lynn Maulhardt: “The real trick for the state and local government is how do we keep the decision making at the local government but have the state apply enough pressure so that they keep their eye on the ball, because if you don’t, things don’t get done.  That is the reality. … The balance is keep enough pressure so the folks have the authority and the capability to solve it at the local level, because as complex as this issue is, if you take it over at the state level, you will create a monster that you can not control …

Lynn Maulhardt: “The biggest fallacy I think we saw in Ventura County was we brought in excess water when it was available, assuming it was stored when it was not, but we could not control the expansion and the use of pumping and that water was pulled out …  “

Sarge Green: “What I found in my work and discussions is one of the most difficult things is the misunderstanding that Dr. Frank and others have talked about and that is the concept of correlative rights and the use of groundwater and sharing groundwater.  Too many people still believe that groundwater under them, they own it.  It’s theirs. It’s a property right, and that’s very rampant, and it has to be corrected, and that’s why I found extreme value in the approach that Stanislaus County was taking because they are educating, educating, educating, and the message is starting to get through.  It’s a shared resource.”

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