Secretary Karen Ross, Thad Bettner, and Eric Averett discuss how implementation of the state’s historic groundwater legislation is progressing as key deadlines approach
The passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 set a path forward managing groundwater sustainably in California. The legislation mandates that groundwater be managed locally, and set specific deadlines for groundwater agencies to be formed and management plans to be developed. As the deadline to form groundwater sustainability agencies nears, how is implementation playing out on the ground? At the recent event, Policy Priorities for California water, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California in Sacramento in October event, a panel of state and local officials discussed the issues.
Panel moderator Thomas Harter from UC Davis set the stage for the panel discussion. “Two years ago, almost to the date, Governor Brown passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” he said. “The Sustainable Groundwater Act set out with two, very foundational principles for its implementation. One was that it explicitly mandates that groundwater as a resource be managed sustainably for future enjoyment of next generations. The other one, equally important, is that groundwater be managed locally and that’s going to be a very big part of its implementation.”
“Sustainability in the Groundwater Management Act is defined by what I call the “Six Commandments:” Thou shall not draw down your water level and deplete your storage. Thou shall not degrade water quality. Thou shall not have sea water intrusion. Thou shall not have subsidence or grab somebody else’s surface water.”
“In implementing these goals, the State set out to mandate that local agencies form Groundwater Sustainability agencies by 2017 to end of June of next year, so very soon,” Mr. Harter continued. “They’re given three years in the case of overdrafted basins and five years in the case of non-overdrafted basins, that are medium and high priority, to implement what is called a Groundwater Sustainability Plan.”
“Now that plan, unlike our former Groundwater Management Plans, is not a plan to plan some more, but a plan to implement. In the implementation, it’s going to have four principle pieces. One is the data management, the assessment monitoring, modeling, understanding the groundwater basin, that’s one piece. Another very important piece is to engage local stakeholders, which is really a new piece of this. Then, when it comes to the actions, there’s going to be conservation and reduction of groundwater use, but also increasing the amount of recharge that’s going into groundwater.”
“The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was in many ways a revolution and we haven’t really seen a major water legislation that has such profound consequences in 50 years, 40 years. It’s maybe only happened twice in the last century. One was when we had the Water Rights legislation in 1914 and created a predecessor to the State Water Board. The other one was Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act in 1969.”
Mr. Harter then posited first question. “How are we doing on the implementation of SGMA? Where are we on the State level, where are we on the local level?”
You made reference to the revolution of the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act; as we go out and we have discussions with stakeholders throughout the area, it does feel like a revolution, more like the French Revolution. People are not happy with the message that we’re communicating.
But to Thomas’ question … It’s hard to assign a grade. The first report card that we’re going to get, it’ll actually come out on June 30, which is a date that the basins throughout the State have to have identified a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. That’s the entity that will step forward and be responsible for preparing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan.
If I were to assign a grade at this point, I would say we’re probably at the local level a ‘D’ and that’s primarily because … At a recent meeting, [a DWR official] indicated that we only have about 20 percent of the basins that have the necessary coverage. Now, I think what happens is human nature. We’ll send them in on June 29th and hopefully have 100 percent of the coverage. So, on the local level, I think we’re still trying to get our arms around what’s required.
The other part of the GSA is in a basin full of type A personalities, it’s what I call the, “Everybody, somebody, nobody” dilemma. Everybody’s going to act as a GSA because they’re afraid somebody else is going to, but really nobody wants to.
The last thing, as far as the State goes, I have to make sure to acknowledge the efforts that the State have made, both DWR and the State Water Board have done an amazing job, not only in their outreach and trying to communicate the various components and the requirements of the plans or the act itself, but also in drafting regulations that I think will do an excellent job in helping us move forward.
I would say the State’s getting an ‘A’ and we have yet to see at the local level.
So, I’ll maybe change from a French Revolution to maybe some sort of a race, but nobody knows what kind of race it is yet. I would say, we’re trying to get everybody to the starting line and really kind of say, we need to get going and get everybody on the same page of what do we know? What don’t we know? What does everybody want out of this process? We have people who already left the starting line or you know, halfway through the race thinking, “I got this. I’m going to win this thing.” We have some people who are close to the line, some people who are putting their clothes on, and some people who haven’t known there’s a race going on yet.
Our challenge is to kind of bring people along and say, ‘You have to engage.’ I mean, everybody has to be a part of this, like Eric was saying. I think part our message and you know, a lot of us are type A people, how do we get this thing going, but acknowledging that we have to go at the right pace to bring on a lot of stakeholders. There’s just a lot of people that don’t even know what this legislation really says, or a lot of its emotions at this point. While we have some data, it’s pretty weak and to get the data into the discussion to start making some solid decisions going forward, it’s going to take a lot of money. You know, previous panel talked about Prop 218 and what a challenge it is to get dollars, but I think that’s going to be one the issues.
So, you try to put all of this together and say, where are we … Maybe we’re a C minus, a little bit better than you guys but … I think we’re getting there. It’s a challenge but I think it’s also a huge opportunity. I think every time we have meetings, you kind of walk away a little bit frustrated, but also walk away with, ‘Hey, we made progress. It’s a good thing and this is going in the right direction.’
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
So my analogy is that this is a marriage amongst parties who have never even dated before and that’s the challenge of bringing together all of the stakeholders. One of the things that is very fundamental to making something this big work is trust, and how do we create trust so that everyone will be engaged and come to the same level of understanding of what we have, what the options are, and how those scenarios will play out.
DWR’s done a great job of getting out the criteria and some of the things that we’d be looking for in a plan. Some people were waiting for to see what their GSA is going to look like. There is this need to trust what’s going on … There’s everybody wanting to be a GSA and that’s going to come home to roost when they all have to put together a plan and make sure that they’ve got the basin covered.
It’s very, very challenging. We also know that in some of the agricultural communities, I’m not sure how many farmers are as engaged as they should be, knowing what the impact is going to be. Part of that is because they’re so overwhelmed with a lot of other things that are impacting their lives and their livelihoods right now. Many of them still confuse us with the Irrigated Lands Program. Many of them in the valley right now are really focused on the flow objectives. So, just having the space to pay attention to that. They know they have drinking water issues, and they’re involved in some of those solutions.
This brings it all together. For the first time, this really does bring land use into the discussion in a way that hasn’t always been there. The interesting part of that is that we have water managers who know how to manage water and then you have boards of supervisors who, all of a sudden, are saying, ‘But, how’s that going to impact my land use? What is that going to impact my community for development, not just the agricultural economy?’
These are really big questions that some people are just now coming to terms with. So, it is a very, very difficult thing. It’s a lot of social behavior and how do we facilitate this. It’s the need to build trust. But, the opportunity is to build community in a very deep kind of way because it is embracing the diversity of our community, including everyone in our community, and coming to some solutions together. I think it also creates the opportunity to better connect the urban, or even in our rural communities, those cities in those rural areas to think about this molecule of water and how we often use it, and be a part of the solution.
“I want to elaborate a little bit on SGMA,” said Moderator Thomas Harter. “For those of you who are not familiar with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, there are two agencies at the State level that have been given the role of being the main overseers on the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The Department of Water Resources is the primary agency developing regulations on how water-specific expectations for the Groundwater Sustainability Plan, what elements to have to be in the Groundwater Sustainability Plans. DWR will also be essentially reviewing these plans and deciding whether they’re good enough or not. DWR has been given the role of providing technical assistance as well.”
“The State Water Resources Control Board is the agency that steps in when plans are not moving forward or when GSAs are not being formed. It’s basically there with the threat to step in and have the State take over the local basin. That has provided much of the motivation for a lot of local agencies that otherwise may have not thought about becoming an agency to get involved.”
How much of the threat has that motivated … for you personally, you’re all very engaged in this process. Any surprises? Any insights or lessons learned from just these initial two years of being in this process? Anything that’s striking you?
If you’ve seen the movie “50 First Dates” … every time I go to a Groundwater Authority Board meeting, it’s like that movie, where I have to repeat and say, “Yes, this is real. Yes, we have to do this.” So, the surprise is – I don’t want to say the lack of engagement, I think that people have a grasp of what’s coming. The dilemma is, we don’t know how to solve it. So, it hasn’t become real yet. It will on June 30, when we start stepping forward and raising our hands and acting as the GSAs.
But, I think what we’re seeing is regulatory fatigue; they have so many issues in front of them from the agricultural perspective that this is just one more. It will not become real until unfortunately, and this is just the reality, until the State board steps in and does define a basin as probationary. Then all of sudden, people will wake up and they’ll say, “Oh, I better pay attention to what’s going to happen”, and that’s unfortunate … The State Board as a backstop has certainly been a motivator and I think it’s gotten people engaged. It’s just translating that theoretical … ‘Okay, I understand that there’s this requirement’ to the practical which is sitting down and starting to develop solutions and facilitating and what not.
The other thing that I would say that surprises me, and again I can only speak for the Kern area, is there’s been extensive outreach with some of the smaller communities. So we have within Kern, which I’m sure is similar to up and down the Central Valley, a number of smaller cities that don’t have the staffing or the resources to really bring to bear to such a significant issue. Unfortunately, many of these cities are 100 percent relying on groundwater, and I think to the extent that SGMA’s moving forward, they have one of the higher or larger hills to climb and they haven’t really started to engage yet, not understanding the fact that we’ve met with them through a variety of venues and tried to grab their attention.
Again, I think it’s a function of they have some many issues that they’re dealing with, that this is just on their shelf and they recognize that they’re going to have to pull it down at some point, but they haven’t engaged yet. So, that’s one of the biggest concerns that I have and is moving forward, how do we engage all of the stakeholders in a way that values their input and that brings them to the table. My biggest concern is that we’ll move forward and then at some point they’re going to say, ‘Hey, wait a sec. You forgot about me and I have, you know, issues X Y and Z’ and we have to pull back or reengage.
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
That’s a very important point and that is one of the reasons we’re in this dilemma … is because of changes in the operations of our system for surface water deliveries. So, those entities who have some surface water have been the first to step up and they’re very confident about what they’re going to be able to do. There’s the irrigation district, some of them are very small, or the small city that’s completely dependent upon groundwater, in or out of the drought, and they don’t want to completely embrace them right now until they know … And what are you going to be willing to do? …
So, that not having a resource to come to the table, let alone the data or the investment dollars to feel like an equal partner, is going to be a hard thing to get over, to really have everyone feel like we are in this together, we’re all … The equity part’s going to be shared here, and those are just fundamental changes in that society, in that particular community.
Our district is up in the Sacramento Valley. We have one basin, the Sacramento basin, and then a bunch of sub-basins. We’re in the Colusa sub-basin, which I think is the largest basin in the Sacramento Valley and maybe even the San Joaquin Valley. Then we have three different counties, each one of the counties wants to have its own process for forming GSAs, or they want to be a GSA themselves or the districts, or eligible agencies in those counties what to do it.
Then you have all of these sub-basins have their different issues of are they in overdraft or not and is it districts, is it private pumpers. Yet, everybody’s got to communicate. … I think the key button really here is trust, of how do you start to build trust somewhere to start that process going because hopefully it’s going to be infectious, and all the other areas … Once, you know, there’s one area or community that’s working together …
One of the things that we did recently … Until people start putting their cards on the table of what they want out of SGMA and what they want out of the GSA process, everybody’s going to sit there and say, ‘I want to make sure I can outvote the other party if we get down to a vote. I want the power. I want to retain this, I want to retain that.’ What we did was pulled all of the districts, all of the eligible GSA districts, out of three counties who were a part of the Colusa sub-basin, and we said, ‘We need to get together and we need to get on the same page. We need to be willing to tell everybody else what we’re looking for out of SGMA.’ So we put together a list of principles on governance, we put together a list of principles on what we’re looking for in terms of future water supply reliability and that included what we use for perspective groundwater law. We also know that flows are coming up with the State Board on the Sacramento River, and the Sacramento River System, how does that play into SGMA?
We were very, just, forthright with what we wanted. We went and talked to the board of supervisors and said, ‘Here’s our position.’ Now, we’re starting to put that into our governance discussions. that DWR has a facilitator and in our two counties Kern and Colusa country to start telling the private pumpers and other folks … ‘Here’s what we’re looking for and what we’re asking for you to do is you put your cards on the table and say what are you looking for, and see if we can figure out can we make this work or not.’
Instead of trying to form governance … maybe we can narrow that down to like five things and say, “Here are the five key issues we need to have the governance to deal with.” Maybe there’s some uber-body that makes the big decisions, but really … Everything needs to be done at the local level, in local parts of the basin. So, we’re hopeful that that’s kind of a way to kick off some of these discussions.
Going to where this forms some sort of an agreement to form governance, maybe we don’t get an actual governance structure by June, but we have an agreement that says, ‘Hey, all the parties at the table, we’re committed to working this out. Here are the issues we want to deal with.’ Then from that, we have more robust governance structure going forward.
“Can you talk a little bit more about that governance structure … the diversity of governance structures we may see?” asks Thomas Harter.
The Groundwater Authority started in 2012 as a management committee. Kern had some groundwater challenges and water level declines, and we brought all the water interests within the county together informally under a management committee. In anticipation of SGMA, we actually formed a JPA. What was interesting, as you circulated the JPA to the various members, they struck out all the authority of the JPA. So, it’s a joint powers authority with absolutely no authority.
So, with the passage of SGMA, we realized that we actually do have to implement some authority. There’s a very strong sense that the decision-making and the responsibility needs to be at the membership level and we’re taking, I don’t know if it’s a unique approach, but the governance that we structured allows the Groundwater Authority to act as both a coordinating entity, which is very, very critical in the SGMA process, but it also can act on behalf of its members in the capacity of a GSA. If it does so, however, it will defer or delegate the responsibility to prepare the plan back to the member. So, it’s kind of this super-coordinating, administrative entity but the power, as long as the member chooses to yield the power at will, or the member can actually delegate to the authority to do that.
So we’ve tried to create this organizational structure that meets the requirements of the state that you coordinate and that you have a responsible entity, but yet also preserve the autonomy and the authority that the membership felt was very, very important. We helped them through that process. We’ll avoid having 50, because there’s fifty entities within Kern Country that could act in the capacity of a GSA. In some cases, they are multi-layered and so within my own water district, there’s three entities that could act as the GSA. So, we’re hopeful that we can consolidate that so we can create an environment where people feel like, ‘Okay, I do have a voice. Somebody else isn’t going to dictate or mandate what I do.’ So, this particular approach we think will work for us.
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
As we did all of these meetings to get a lot of the guidelines out and meet the deadlines that the State had, I was taken by surprise by how many early filings of “I’m going to be the GSA” there was concern that this is going to be a problem. There has to be that flexibility and the understanding that as long as you’re making forward progress, and you’re showing that … The real test will be if you can knit your basin together, so that balance of supporting some of this trust-building and making this work and getting everybody at the table, and on the pathway to meeting the benchmarks and the timelines.
The State Board and the Chair in particular, has said, ‘We’re not going to go after you if you’re really that deeply engaged, you’re making forward progress, and you’ve met certain kinds of deadlines. We’re going to look for those people who really haven’t even gotten started, who just can’t make something work … “
How do you create enough flexibility to let this process work? Because if we don’t let the process work, there won’t be the trust. Putting together the plan will be a failure. … That deals so much on the behaviors of everybody coming together to make really hard decisions about your livelihood, your quality of life, your drinking water, the environment and the health of our streams. So how do you balance that? I wish I had the answer. I could go out and be a consultant.
“Thad, any thoughts on governance structures? Diversity on governance structures? Or maybe it’s all the same?” asked Thomas Harter.
We’re kind of the same thing. Probably some joint powers authority that would again try to utilize everybody’s powers that they have, and they retain the power as long as they use it. If they don’t, then the JPA would come in and basically trump them, and say, “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to do to maintain sustainability, and so we’re taking over the bus” you know.
I think the other thing … we just need a lot of data to get this thing going. There’s so much, ‘I think’, ‘you know’, or ‘I believe’ – let’s use facts to start making better decisions. The other thing we want to try and do is … You know, the county is in our region. I mean, they don’t have any money and to say, “Hey, we need to bring a million dollars into each one of these counties to start getting these studies going, to adequate water balances, to have each landowner … understand how they’re benefiting or impacting the groundwater system or streams.” I mean, that takes a lot. It’s pretty data intensive.
So, what we’re also trying to do is say, how can districts try and front some of the money to get these studies going? Give that money to the county. We want to make sure the county is kind of lead, so it doesn’t appear to be tainted by private pumpers, or something like that. But how do we get that money going so we can get these studies going to make sure we’re using facts and science and data to help drive some of the decisions in the GSP.
“Secretary Ross, DWR and State Water Board have both very central roles in implementation,” said Moderator Thomas Harter. “But agriculture is going to be a heavy lifter in this, being 80 percent of the groundwater use in the state. What’s the role of the Department of Food and Agriculture in this?”
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
Agriculture is the nexus to everything and so my department has no statutory authority in this. … I see our role as supporting. We’re very involved right now through the executive order with the Ag Water Management Plans and providing input and data on that. It’s facilitating. It’s going out. I’ve done a lot of one-on-one meetings, or bringing people together on a country-wide basis, to be supportive of this.
We have no defined role in this, and yet the impact for us is huge. One of the things that I think about, and we won’t be here in two years, is we will be at a point where some of these communities, the impacts are going to be severe. I know one of the questions you’re going to ask is how to get some of these basins into balance. We need to be thinking, as we do this, about these rural communities and the significant change that’s coming there, and think smarter about, ‘What is that workforce? What are those small towns dependent upon? What are some concurrent things we should be doing through workforce development, through any type of community development …’
Those are going to be real impacts and it’s a lot to put up at the front part of this process, but I feel like I have to bring those up and make sure that we’re putting some planning process and supporting process there.
“Due next year, we have these GSAs, hopefully most of them,” said Moderator Thomas Harter. “Then, we’re going to go into this process of building Groundwater Sustainability Plans, and that, as he said, it’s data … Understanding a water budget and to the degree that there’s overdraft, bringing that water budget into balance, either by increasing the amount of water that goes into the groundwater basin, or by decreasing the amount that’s taken out.”
“In these agricultural basins that you represent, what is the thinking about where to create that balance where you are out of balance? Kern County certainly has significant overdraft issues. There are a few local places in the Sacramento Valley. But, the Sacramento Valley may have other issues that aren’t going to come to the forefront and are sort of forced through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that we really never look at, which is that groundwater surface water interface and how groundwater pumping impacts our surface water resources, and impacts groundwater dependent ecosystems.”
“How do you see us dealing with this, in terms of actual projects once we have the data understanding this? Is there a sense of where this may be going?”
California needs a water project. For Kern Country … I’ll just give you some numbers because it is significant and it’s up and down the Central Valley … If you’ve ever seen a DWR map, it shows the critically overdrafted basins are all in the Central Valley. For Kern County, if we don’t develop additional water supplies, we will lose 25 percent of our irrigated agriculture. That’s four billion for Kern, annually in lost economic output.
But, I want to put that into context because I think it’s important. I’m a strong supporter of SGMA. I think it was necessary legislation. But, to put it in context … I thought, when I first started getting involved in groundwater issues, that the agricultural sector was the architect of its own issue.
I can only speak for Kern County but I started looked at, well, what has happened, and I thought, ‘Well, we’ve increased our crop acreage.’ In 1967-68, Kern Country signed up for the contract with the State Water Project for one million acre feet. In 1980, DWR identified Kern as overdrafted basin, but it had a statement that said, to the extent, that Kern County can receive 100 percent of its State Water Project supplies, it will not be overdrafted. So, I went into 2013 and I looked at the level of irrigated acreage on the agricultural commissioner’s website. We actually had 20,000 acres of less irrigated land in 2013, than we did in 1980.
The demand has changed. It has shifted to trees and other crops … But, it’s no accident that the level of overdrafting in Kern County is directly proportional to the reduction in our state project yield. So, we are expected to get 50 percent of our state project supply. Our overdraft, as of today, based on that projection, is 480,000 acre feet. That’s not an accident.
So, California needs to develop a new water supply project. There’s not enough water, to be perfectly blunt. There’s not enough water in this state – existing supplies – to provide the necessary tools that we need in order to continue the level of agricultural output from the Central Valley. The only solution that we have is demand reduction, which means economic devastation in Kern Country. 25 percent of the irrigated agriculture, one million acres of irrigated ag; 250,000 will go on to production.
So, as for as how that plays into SGMA, as water managers, our job is to develop solutions and hopefully we can do so and come up with creative solutions, whether it’s land conversion, doing different types of things … But, the biggest challenge that we face is having a reliable water supply that we can make available, whether it’s urban or ag.
We do have parts in our area where the basin is overdrafted. Obviously, at some point the first thing you have to look at is demand reduction. We don’t have enough supply to serve that. Then, you start looking at … What’s going to happen to that school that I drive by on my way to work? What’s going to happen that school, you know, where’s the tax base … You start to get into those sort of spiraling mind games … What can we do to make it better?
I think our goal has to be what can we do as water managers to find solutions and I think we’re obviously committed to that. … The State Board’s going to potentially come out with a new flow scenario in the Sacramento River. That’s potentially going to result in less surface water being available in the Sacramento Valley. So, how does that affect overall supply? How does that impact different parts of the valley? Right now we also have areas where we have surface-groundwater connection, so we’re a little bit different than the San Joaquin system; where we have rivers, creeks, and streams that are still connected to the groundwater, they still have groundwater-dependent ecosystems attached to them.
So, what do we need to be doing to make sure we’re securing those benefits for those creeks and streams. Even within our own districts, in the Sac Valley, we have species that we protect within our own boundaries – garter snake, all kinds of birds, we have the Pacific Flyway. We’re also trying to protect and manage the environment, just within the area that we actually build our water to, that’s become surrogate wetlands.
That’s the balance that we’re trying to maintain, of how do we do all of these different tools, or what different tools do we need to make sure we can meet all these competing needs. Then, making sure that people don’t judge from the outside and say, “Here’s what you ought to do” but actually, “Hey, come in the room and help us make these decisions.” So, we tried to partner with the agencies, partner with other folks. Nature Conservancy is really working with us on the groundwater ecosystems and starting to look at surface groundwater interaction.
We greatly enjoy their participation and their ideas, their modeling. We’re kind of saying, hey come in, get to know our system, get to know the valley, and then help us develop solutions. That’s ultimately what it’s about, but I’d be selling myself short if I didn’t also say we think projects like Sites Reservoir are huge. Off stream storage, a half a million acre feet of new yield that can go to the environment, help instream flow temperatures on Sacramento River. Those are the types of projects that are out there that are pretty much economically benign and can help really advance and provide benefits to the system.
Those are things, that there are tools out there, I think people say, “Well, there’s no new supply.” I think there are new supplies but we have to make sure they’re smart type projects.
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
Can I advocate for my favorite project too? I work for Governor Brown and so conveyance has to be fixed. So, I’ll just say that. Conveyance is a big part of it, it’s also making our existing system, which is pretty broken right now, work better …
For our regional resiliency, are there also smaller scale projects that can be done, including conveyance east, west, not just north, south, but also smaller scale projects … Really thinking intentionally about recharge, looking at those opportunities to connect to treated, recycled water, capturing storm water, and doing recharge and projects on farms that will also produce environmental benefits, and there are many, many, many examples of how we can use those molecules of water.
It’s done extensively in the Sacramento Valley but there are also those opportunities in the southern San Joaquin that will help, but the bottom line is: The subsidence issue that we had decades ago was somewhat solved because figured out a way to deliver surface water to stop groundwater pumping … There still needs to be some additional water, wherever it falls and however we move it … Or we fallow a lot of acres – like millions of acres.
“Funding was mentioned earlier,” said Thomas Harter. “In the previous panel, we talked about Prop 218. We also talked on the previous panel about the opportunities of markets. What are your thoughts on water markets? Are some of these issues going to be resolved by water markets? Or some of these innovative actions, like recharging the agricultural landscape and clean recharge to address water quality issues in the agricultural landscape? Are water markets a potential good players for that, and what are you looking for in tools that they State can provide there?”
I think clearly markets are going to be a part of it. In fact, with SGMA you’ve introduced the supply constraint. Previously, you could drill a well and have access to as much water as you need, and now with SGMA and the limitation on that, you certainly have created the market, which ultimately they will drive up costs.
We’re already seeing the conversation regarding markets in Kern County where some of the more sophisticated landowners, developers, and growers are coming forward and saying, “Okay, I’d like to buy some ground over here. I may never develop it but it’s got a good water right associated with it and I need to be able to move it over to higher value crops, or permanent crops over here.”
So, we’re going to go through a period of evaluating and identifying how these markets can be structured to work, and not create impacts in maybe one area versus another. But, I definitely think it’ll be a necessary tool in order for us to manage and minimize the impacts associated with SGMA.
I look forward to the market concept. I think Australia has given us an excellent model to look at. There may be some things we borrow from them and their experience, and hopefully … I would expect that California will have something very similar.
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
Being the populist that I am, markets absolutely will be a part of this and transfers already are, and they will continue to be, but it’s just one many, if not the answer. We have already created an atmosphere that makes it extremely difficult for small and mid-size farmers to be able to afford to be able comply that we’re doing. So, we have to think very strongly about how much change and consolidation we drive, and what that means to local communities.
The Australians have one model and they have impacted rural communities and what can we learn from that, and try to get the communities as whole as we possibly can.
You have to switch gears a little bit from the urban context, in that most of the ag areas and districts are recharging a lot of the groundwater system. So, some people say “That’s inefficient” or, “You’re wasting water,”- I don’t know how you can say “waste water” when it ends up back in the ground … so I think it’s real important to understand things from a basin level, from a district level, through water balance, and other ways to really understand how water gets down there.
A lot of us have canals that are not lined, so we have leakage through the canal system. We have deep percolation of some water when it’s supplied. All that’s going back into the water table and ultimately gets reused. One of the reasons why our basin is so good in the Sacramento Valley is that a lot of systems are pretty much all open, and water’s reused, it’s picked up, it’s recycled, it’s reused, and some of that water gets back into the ground and it keeps our groundwater system in good shape.
Audience question: I can’t say, Secretary Ross, how pleased I am that you mentioned the health of the communities in addition to the planning. I think in a lot our planning efforts, we focus a lot on the outcome, rather than the process and so I wonder the extent to which some of some our local agencies here are thinking about including communities and economics, but also looking upstream? I’m representing the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and lots of the water surface and groundwater comes from upstream. So, I’m wondering if that’s part of your planning process?
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
Certainly upper watershed management is part of the California Water Action Plan, and we understand that connectivity, and there’s been a lot of good work going on at that.
I think it’s hard … trying to create what they’re doing for the immediate, but all of the things we want them to factor in upfront. We don’t necessarily have a dedicated state source that looks at community or rural development like USDA does. The closest we have are some of the projects that may or may not be undertaken by our office of Policy Research, which is part of the Governor’s office.
So, I see that as a missing link in just how we structured state government and I think that’s why we have the rural community issues that we do have. Not that I’m advocating larger government …
We live and work in our communities, so I think it’s important to know that they’re always part of this conversation, so reaching out to the single family homes that are on a domestic well that are out in the countryside, making sure they have stable water supplies, as well as our small communities. We want them at the table, they are at the table. Some of them asked to be eligible GSA, so we want to make sure they’re in the governance.
We always look upstream so we totally support the efforts you guys do in the watersheds. It’s vitally important and it’s good that there are always actions getting funded up there. I think one of the other things that we’re going to do within our GSP is that there has to be a pretty robust outreach effort to make sure you are reaching the locals, the tribes, and the others, to make sure they all are inclusive in the process. So, how that affects uptream folks, I don’t know if we send letters all the way up into the watersheds, but I would say, more the better. So, if there’s an opportunity to come and participate, there’s always a seat there and we’d appreciate that there is an upstream of us.
Audience question: I heard a lot of discussing up there about trust and data, two things that often go weirdly hand in hand, … As we’re building the system, let’s look to other systems, like the healthcare system for example, and see things where that at the local level, that sharing of data, is so incredibly difficult. What are the reporting requirements going to be so that we would have a way to meaningfully, reasonably, safely, and trustingly collect that data in the future and what are the obstacles to doing that?
Let me touch on the trust issue. What we see is a bifurcation of interests into what I call the haves and have nots. Those that have a water supply are very protective and don’t want to share data because it demonstrates that they do, and their concern is that those who are on the other side of the equation are going to go and somehow try to gain access.
Fortunately, SGMA does require reporting and it is intended to be transparent, and frankly, for a basin to move forward, everybody in the basin has to move forward in lockstep and at the same pace. … This coordination requirement is extensive and so, I literally cannot prepare my plan until I understand what everybody’s data is.
In fact, the beauty of SGMA is all the puzzle pieces have to be able to fit together and the picture has to be clear, which is very different than what has been in the past. We had double counting issues, and all kinds of challenges because the data was never presented in a way that you could really look at it.
So, I think we’re addressing that, but for me, the biggest challenge is you’ve got haves and have nots, and some groups don’t want to share their data because of that.
Audience question: How do you all think the problem of the overlapping GSAs that are forming over the priority basins is ultimately going to resolve itself? Especially if the excluded entities, whether they’re urban agencies or ag districts or whatever, if their groundwater rights have been abridged, or if there are fees, if they feel like in the GSPs they’re going to have fee structures that are going to unduly harm them. The recourse of course is litigation, but do you think that the water board, as it approves these Groundwork Sustainability Plans, and actually approves them, do you think that these problems can be resolved at that point, before you get to litigation?
With the overlap issue, obviously the big issue there was when SGMA’s… First time it was written, it said, “Hey, you have to basically respond to 90 days if you have concern about overlap” and that’s why everybody took off and did all these fillings, and then SB 12 fixed that. I think now we’re kind of back in everybody’s got to play nice, you know, what you have on there doesn’t work …
I give credit to DWR and the administration. I mean, they have given dollars for facilitators to come in and really help to clear up that issue. So, I think everybody is serious about trying to get the overlap issue resolved by next summer. I mean, that’s our focus in making sure that we can submit to something that works.
The State Board has done a great job with being the stick, and I wouldn’t want to be in their position, but they’ve done a great job saying, “Hey, if you don’t get this right, we’re going to step in.” That has helped to make sure people stay at the table.
I think for the most part, you’re going to see things work out in June. There will probably be a few outliers, but I think everybody’s committed to that. Secondly, like in our area, we do have mutuals, independent small districts that are GSA eligible, and that’s where the county has stepped in and assumed to sort of protect them. That’s why, from our perspective, it’s very important to get the county supervisors, county councils, to make sure they’re committed to protecting those stakeholders, if you will, and engaging the process and making sure they’re engaged.
Obviously, some tough decisions are coming but the county’s got to be the one. I’ve kept saying, they’ve always had this authority. Before SGMA, the county’s always had the authority to do things they’re now being asked to do. We’re saying, you gotta do it now, you know? Yeah, I get it, it’s going to be a touch election whatever … But, you guys got to step up. This is a time to do it. So, we’re holding the counties accountable.
Audience question: I do think that it’s incumbent on those that serve in public office and are ultimately going to be making these choices … To anticipate who sits on those boards who are really going to make the decisions and what that decision process is going to be so that the interests of ag as well as our municipal interests are protected both, and I do think that ultimately, the challenge is going to be in making the assessment about where those priorities are.
To me, when I listen to what is being said, it seems to me what we’re sort of ignoring really are that the problems aren’t really there as much today as they potentially will be in the long haul. It’s proven to be in many ways divisive and I do believe the divisiveness is because no one can predict the future. I’d appreciate any thoughts in that regard.
SECRETARY KAREN ROSS
If you’ve got the good data to feed a tool to allow you to sit together with scenario planning, so that everybody can see if this is the way we want to grow, if this is the kind of agriculture we want, we want to continue to provide a real lifestyle for people who want to live in the country, and we want to make sure our citizens have drinking water and that we have a healthy environment. You can start to play out the scenarios. If you take this much water out, what does that mean? I think those kinds of real time, scenario planning tools are one of the best ways in a community setting to have people sit and vision together what these decisions … If we went this way, what would that mean?
I’m not sure that there’s enough of that that’s readily available at the local use, and it requires investment. But I think it’s one of the smartest things we could do because literally we are talking about, “What do we want the Central Valley to look like.” What do we want your community to look like. We’ve got these competing and equally beneficial uses, but what do we want it to look like? Because we are making the decisions today that are going to shape that, and we may or may not be able to back out of them if we aren’t smart about it.
I think you touched on one of the uncomfortable tensions that exists in this process from a Central Valley perspective. You have the urbanized areas that represent 10 percent of the overall water use, but they represent the vast majority of the population obviously, and from a voting standpoint, the Board of Supervisors are always interested and concerned about where their votes will be coming from. So, it was fascinating to watch the political maneuvering that was occurring as we were drafting this JPA because we had to figure out how can we give them a voice to make sure that they had input into the process, but yet also protect the users of the water, which in Kern County is 95% agriculture.
So, we’re always trying to figure out how to make everybody feel like they’re valued and they’re part of the process and not exclude anybody, but it does create that an uncomfortable tension and I think SGMA’s going to highlight that. I frequently hear the Mark Twain quote, and I think it’s absolutely true, I would offer Ben Franklin’s quote, “You know the worth of water when the well goes dry.”
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