A San Joaquin Valley perspective, a Sacramento Valley perspective, a researcher’s perspective and a consultant’s perspective on GSP development
Since the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, people across the state have been working to implement the legislation. With Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) formed to manage the groundwater basins that are subject to SGMA, the agencies now turn to the major task at hand: developing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan that will meet the requirements of the legislation.
Developing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan is a complex and intensive process and the deadline for plan adoption is coming up fast. Critically-overdrafted basins have less than a year; their Groundwater Sustainability Plans must be adopted by January 31, 2020. All other GSAs must adopt their plans by January 31, 2022.
The Exchange Contractors GSA covers 250,000 acres and has four members: the Central California Irrigation District, the San Luis Canal Company, the Firebaugh Water District, and the Columbia Canal Company.
The Exchange Contractors have been actively managing groundwater since the 1950s, expanding over the years to include development of an AB-3030 Groundwater Management Plan. They have continued to study the basin in an effort to figure out the best way to manage the resources and maintain what was known at the time as safe yield. They also worked with neighboring agencies and water districts performing joint groundwater investigations and developing a water resources plan.
“With the water resources plan, there are groundwater recharge projects, subsidence mitigation or subsidence monitoring, and floodwater capture and conveyance,” said Mr. Martin. “Those are the projects that will be coming for some people in the next 5, 10 years.”
Mr. Martin then described their process for developing a GSP. “For us, it comes down to updating our historical reports and getting through the basin setting,” he said. “The basin setting is your hydrogeologic conceptual model – the ‘ologies’ and ‘ographies’ – your hydrogeogology, your geography, your topography, and those kinds of things and then expanding that into a water budget.”
He said with respect to the water budget, his advice was to try to keep it as simple as possible. They are using a spreadsheet-type model. “Take your knowns: districts with surface water supplies know how much surface water came in, and you know the consumptive use of the crops,” he said. “Those two things make up a significant portion of your water balance and those two things are the things you want to spend a lot of time getting right, because if you’re wrong on that, off 10% is a big number. Then work through all the other little things and try to fine tune with whatever data that you have.”
He also advised that if you aren’t collecting the data, start on that first. “Luckily for us, in the 1950s we started gathering data, and so it’s really just taking that data and expanding upon it.”
It’s also important to keep in mind the physical setting. “You can work through a spreadsheet with all its inefficiencies and inaccuracies and assumptions, but at the end of the day, the water level in your monitor wells either goes up or goes down,” said Mr. Martin. “If you can measure that water level and equate that to a storage coefficient area, you know what the change in groundwater storage is. It’s a simple calculation; it’s arithmetic. So if you look at the water budget, the spreadsheet model, your numerical model, and you look at the change in storage based on water levels – put those two things together, and if you’re close, you have a pretty good assumption of where you’re at with your water budget.”
The 23 GSAs working in the Delta Mendota Basin are divided into six groups with each group developing a GSP, which will be coordinated with the other GSPs to manage the basin.
Their GSP group encompasses about 300,000 acres and includes three disadvantaged communities, three severely disadvantaged communities, and some county white areas, as well as another water district up near the river.
Recognizing that five of the six cities rely solely on groundwater, CCID and the Exchange Contractors in the early 1990s worked with the cities on studying groundwater conditions to ensure long-term reliability of their water supplies. “The report was strictly written for the cities, but we cost-shared in that and we offered our expertise, and what that did was it built trust,” he said. “That is key; if you haven’t worked with the people you have to work with, whether it’s at the GSA level or an expanding subbasin to subbasin coordination level, the first step is you have to develop trust. Once you develop that trust, then you can all start to make progress.”
They have gained the trust of the cities, who have turned over implementation and development of the GSP over to CCID and the Exchange Contractors, and this really lays the tracks for a long-term strategy that’s going to be sustainable, not only for the ag districts but also for the urban, said Mr. Martin.
In the 750,000-acre Delta Mendota subbasin, there are 23 GSAs developing six different plans that touch 9 different subbasins. The chart lays out how this will be accomplished, with each color on the chart represents a different GSP in the subbasin, with the layers of GSAs and who is going to be coordinating with who shown below.
Since there will be more than one GSP, a coordination agreement is required which describes how the GSAs are going to use the same data and methodologies in developing plans so that they all work together. In order to develop the coordination agreement, they have established a committee that is primarily tasked with all the coordination efforts, not only developing what needs to be coordinated but how it’s going to be coordinated, who is going to pay for what, and what the timelines are, he said.
Working underneath the coordination committee is a technical subcommittee that is tasked with the determining the specifics on things such as how to coordinate a water budget. “The coordination committee says you need to coordinate a water budget and make sure it’s going to meet the statute, and the technical subcommittee then meets and determines how we’re going to use the same data and methodologies, this is how we’re going to compare groundwater inflows and outflows, this is how we’re going to compare changes in groundwater storage, and these are the years we’re going to look at. It starts really that simple. If we’re not looking at the same years, we’re not going to have the same data.”
Each GSP will have the details and management strategies, and then each GSP will also have a common chapter which will describe how all the different efforts are being coordinated. There will be technical memoranda that spells out how things are being coordinated.
“Whether it’s defining an undesirable result at the subbasin level or whether it’s what years you’re looking at for a projected water budget and what kind of projects you’re implementing, it’s taking the point of starting at not necessarily where you want to end up, but taking the elephant one bite at a time,” Mr. Marin said. “We know we have to coordinate this whole thing so let’s have an agreement that says we agree that we’re going to coordinate and this is the process we’re going to go through.”
He then briefly explained how they envision the process of plan development. “We’re working on coordinating each individual level. So the first step is to develop the historic water budget that lays the foundation for where you’re at and link to your current water budget. Then get into your projected water budget. Then figure out how climate change impacts your projected water budget. Then figure out what projects and management actions are going to do to your projected water budget. Then figure out which monitoring sites you’re going to have. Then once you know what monitoring sites you’re going to have, then you can start to develop sustainable management criteria at the those representative sites, and look at triggers and thresholds.”
They have developed a communications subcommittee for both stakeholder and internal communications. The committee is working to meet the outreach requirements spelled out in SGMA. They have been holding public workshops for the local communities and constituents. Farmers are hearing about SGMA at practically every meeting they go to, but urban folks likely aren’t, said Mr. Martin. They also reached out to the Nature Conservancy when they were working through the groundwater-dependent ecosystems.
“It’s that public involvement, whether it’s an NGO, whether it’s the public, whether it’s an ag district, or whether it’s a farmer, getting their local input is going to be critical to developing the GSP,” he said.
The projects and management actions are really where the rubber meets the road. “You work through a water budget, it’s going to tell you good, bad, or indifferent, but it’s these projects, these management actions, that’s where this whole plan comes together,” he said. “For us, it’s looking at recharge projects. It’s not looking at recharge projects for CCID or for the Exchange Contractors; it’s looking at recharge projects for our partners, our neighbors, the cities, for other districts, for the white area growers, and it’s developing these projects in a more regional holistic aspect that’s really going to help the entire subbasin in our region maintain a healthy aquifer.”
To conclude, Mr. Martin said that for them, the coordination with neighbors didn’t start with SGMA; for them, it started back in the 1990s and it really started gaining ground in the 2000s. “In the most recent drought, we were reaching out to our neighbors and developing joint recharge projects, joint flood capture facilities, and subsidence mitigation. It’s not just to meet whatever SGMA defines and whatever the regulations say we have to do, but it’s really trying to get at where do we want to be as a society in California and how do we get there. And these projects and management actions are going to be the key to help you to that sustainable area.”
A SACRAMENTO VALLEY PERSPECTIVE ON GSP DEVELOPMENT
Mary Fahey is Program Manager for the Colusa Groundwater Authority and Water Resources Manager for Colusa County. In her presentation, she discussed how the groundwater basins in the Sacramento alley are approaching development of their GSPs.
The Sacramento Valley groundwater basin stretches from Red Bluff down to Rio Vista. There are no critically overdrafted basins in the Sacramento Valley. GSPs for critically overdrafted basins are due in 2020, and GSPs for all the other basins are due January 31, 2022.
Groundwater provides about 30% of the water supplies in the Sacramento Valley in a normal year. Generally, groundwater resources in the Sacramento Valley really are in good condition, although they do have some pockets of concern; a recent subsidence report found that the town of Arbuckle has sunk 2 feet between 2009 and 2017.
Folks in the Sacramento Valley a really strong record of cooperating and working together. This seems to have been happening more and more since the onset of the drought and the onset of SGMA and since people are perceiving the potential threats to surface water supplies, different agencies are really pulling together and trying to find positive solutions to these issues, she said.
The County of Butte is coordinating their SGMA efforts in all of the basins in their county. The Butte subbasin extends into Glenn County and Colusa County. There are multiple GSAs in the Butte subbasin which were formed by the 2017 deadline; they are all now working together to figure out what that governance is going to look like. They are discussing whether to remain as separate GSAs or to form a single agency like a JPA, so they are working on governance in conjunction with beginning GSP development.
“In my mind, those are two huge tasks and quite a lot to take on at the same time,” Ms. Fahey said. “It took us a little over two years to form our GSAs in the Colusa Basin. But they have hired a really good facilitator and they are having monthly meetings trying to get the governance structure put together. That’s quite a lot of work they have on their hands.”
The County of Sutter submitted an alternative plan for the Sutter subbasin.
“They feel that their subbasin is sustainable and that they have the data to back that up, so they submitted their plan by the January 1, 2017 deadline. That plan is still pending review by DWR, so they don’t know if its going to be accepted or rejected.”
DWR’s determination on whether they will accept the alternative or not won’t be known until March of this year at the earliest. “They have to move forward and submit their first annual report by April 1st, 2019, assuming that the alternative plan is accepted. If it’s not, then they’ll have to start over and put together a GSP.”
Yolo County put together a multi-agency GSA early on. They had a good foundation built up for many, many years of great management by local agencies. It’s a large GSA – about 27 members, with a large board.
“They are our over-achiever neighboring basin; they are planning to get their GSP completed by 2020 although they have until 2022 to get that done,” Ms. Fahey said. “They have a great foundation, a lot of good data built up and they are moving forward very efficiently.”
The Colusa subbasin is one of the largest groundwater basins in the state. Prior to 2016, there were some basin boundary modifications; the basin used to extend up into Tehama County a little bit and down into Yolo County but it’s now confined to portions of Glenn County and Colusa County.
In 2015, there were about 17 separate GSAs; there were overlapping GSAs and no one was really coordinating. They spent about two and a half years meeting and talking it through and have decided on two multi-agency JPAs in the basin, one in the Glenn County portion and one in the Colusa County portion.
“We’re working together on a single GSP and we plan to have that completed by the January 31, 2022 deadline and we’ll probably stretch it out to just get in under that deadline,” she said. “We’re not very far along. We’ve just started our basin setting portion of GSP development. We’re hoping as we go along developing our GSP that we can learn from the folks that have to have their plans done by 2020 and those that choose to have theirs done by 2020. We’ll be sharing information and keeping an eye on those.”
They are also working on figuring out how to fund the effort, so they have begun the Prop 218 process to get a landowner fee in place.
Their GSA has a 12 member board. “We do have two private pumper representatives on our board, which is fairly unique in the state,” said Ms. Fahey. “It was very important to our supervisors that these groundwater pumpers have a voice on our GSA board and our legal counsel figured out a way to get that done.”
Ms. Fahey then discussed some of the challenges the Sacramento Valley is facing with SGMA and GSP development. “SGMA is a new program,” she said. “There are a lot of unknowns – even GSP development is new. We’re all trying to figure it out. One of our facilitators describes it as we’re flying the plane as we’re building it, and that’s kind of how it feels.”
Financing is a challenge. “The GSAs are new agencies, they have staff, they have legal counsel, they have insurance and all those types of things as well as infrastructure that has to be paid for somehow,” she said. “So we’re all figuring out how to finance this effort.”
The old groundwater management plans were typically planned within jurisdictional lines; everyone is now working across those jurisdictional lines and coordinating data and that’s new, she said.
Addressing groundwater and surface water interaction is one of the sustainability indicators that they see as a challenge and that’s something that’s also new. “No one’s quite sure how to evaluate that, how to monitor it, and how to address that.”
There are always political challenges, she said. “You’re charging fees, you’re putting in regulations, and you’re an enforcement agency basically so those are upcoming challenges. And then landowner engagement for us in a rural area, it’s hard to get the word out to landowners, but we’re doing our best.”
WHAT IS WORKING
Ms. Fahey then listed some of the things that are working for them. “I think that multi-agency JPA structure has been very beneficial,” she said. “We’re pooling our resources, pooling our expertise, really working together and coordinating, which helps to keep the costs down. It just creates great efficiencies and having those private pumpers on the board helps with the landowner outreach and it’s great to have their perspective as well as we put our plans together.”
Coordination efforts are going well in the Sacramento Valley. “In the northern Sacramento Valley, our IRWMP group is a six county group. All of the staff from the technical advisory committees of those counties, we coordinate often, we talk about SGMA, we share information, share data, and cry on each other’s shoulders, so that’s been a great help. DWR has offered assistance and we have taken advantage of all of it – their grant funding, their facilitation support services, and technical support services.”
“We have generally good conditions in the Sacramento Valley and as much work and expense as it is, we think about SGMA as a positive because as we start to see this subsidence popping up in the Arbuckle area, we’re going to have to address that through SGMA and its best to address those types of things now because we want to have sustainable groundwater conditions into the future and so that’s a positive thing.”
A RESEARCHER’S PERSPECTIVE ON GSP DEVELOPMENT
Tara Moran is a Research Associate and Program Lead for Sustainable Groundwater at Stanford’s Water in the West where her research focuses on the technical requirements of sustainable water management. In her presentation, she discussed the research being done at Stanford and in collaboration with other colleagues who are traveling throughout the state talking with those on the ground about the successes, challenges, needs, and experiences while working to implement SGMA.
The deadline for formation of GSAs was in June of 2015, and there was greater than 99% compliance, and this really speaks to the fact that people are really taking SGMA seriously and really trying to implement it, said Ms. Moran. The statistics on the slide were from September 2017, so the numbers may have changed slightly, she noted.
“There were 253 GSA notices and 179 or greater than 70% of them were single entity GSAs,” she said. “74 of them are multi-entity GSAs, and those GSAs span 134 basins. 64 or just shy of half are managed under a single management entity. So this statistic sounds really great. It’s very encouraging.”
Single management entities are shown in lighter green on the map and the multiple management entities are shown in the darker green. Although about 70 are managed by multiple management entities, but the basins that are covered by single management entities tend to be much smaller in scale, and as a result, they only represent about 20% of the actual basin area, she said.
“As we all well know, water management in California tends to be very fragmented and we’re continuing to see that moving forward,” she said. “It’s really important that we understand how these GSAs have formed, because it sets the stage for what we’re likely to see during the development of the Groundwater Sustainability Plans.”
Ms. Moran then discussed two different research projects underway. The first is looking at the agreements between the 74 multi-entity GSAs and looking at how they are working together and how they are going to resolve disputes internally.
“We’re looking at them to understand whether they have a dispute resolution clause, what that clause looks like if they do, what mechanisms they are choosing to use, and how that relates to the voting structures that have been developed,” she said. “One of the real motivations in all of this is to understand and use this to inform the development of the dispute resolution clauses that are required in the coordination agreements. So we really want to understand what these look like and how this might be useful as basins who have multiple GSPs think about resolving disputes both internally as well as between other GSAs and GSPs in their basin.”
Of the 74 of these multi-basin GSAs, 56% are JPAs and the remaining 44% are MOAs or Memorandum of Agreements. “Two-thirds of them do have a dispute resolution clause in them,” she said. “Part of that is because we applied a pretty liberal interpretation to dispute resolution clause, so we’ve seen everything from ‘we’re going to negotiate in good faith’ to very thorough dispute resolution clauses that include timelines for internal negotiation, mechanisms to transition to bring in third party mediators, clauses that relate to who will bear the cost of those negotiations and the like. We’re hoping to have some of this work coming out later this summer that can help inform GSP development for these critically overdrafted basins that require these dispute resolution clauses by January of next year.”
The second project is a collaboration with Anita Millman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Bill Bloomquist at Indiana Purdue University of Indianapolis. The goal of this project is to talk to different GSAs to understand the factors that influenced their decision to either form their own GSA or make decisions about coordinating with other agencies, and to understand the common challenges and solutions in coordinating their management under SGMA, and then to translate some of these broader findings both to GSAs who aren’t in the critically overdrafted basins as well as beyond California, she said.
“Sustainable groundwater management is a global conundrum, and so what we’re learning and what we’re undertaking here in California is really of interest globally,” Ms. Moran said. “So we’re focused on the critically overdrafted basins, and in particular, we’re focused on the basins that have multiple GSAs which are shown in any color of green shading. The differences in green shading indicate the number of different GSAs and so you can see that Delta Mendota is here with dark green and has 23 GSAs and most of which have numerous GSAs.”
She noted that the project is not intended to evaluate GSAs or the GSPs; the goal is to try to understand what is happening and then to translate those findings more broadly. They are currently conducting interviews and surveys and will do the same next year after GSPs have been submitted.
Ms. Moran then talked briefly about some of the common challenges they have been hearing. There are several issues regarding data quality and analysis. One challenge is with respect to discrepancies in the quality of data. For example, if two GSAs coordinating and one has really good data but the other has really poor data, what does that translate to?
“The good news is that many of these GSAs recognize that the data isn’t going to be perfect on this first round of GSPs nor should it be,” she said. “The challenge or the question that comes in is really related to who is going to pay to bring all of our data up to a common standard. What does that look like, how do we share those costs? And what does that means for the analysis that we can actually achieve? There is a lot of discussion around how do we ensure that our analysis is going to meet what is required for GSP development moving forward.”
Another challenge is related to institutional processes and rules. Agencies have different approval processes and different ways that their Boards need to be engaged at different points in time; coordinating those efforts, particularly between multiple GSAs or where there are multiple entities within GSAs can really become quite a challenge and can hang up the entire process. “I think this is really becoming even more poignant now that GSPs are coming into this final 10 months until they need to be in, and the agencies are starting to lay out what does that timeline look like and where do we need to engage one another?”
Streamlining processes while maintaining compliance with the Brown Act and other rules in play is another challenge, so there is a need to be careful about planning this process as a whole. This is a particular challenge for many of the counties who are operating in multiple basins. “They are trying to navigate the different institutional processes in each of those basins where they may have very different roles all happening in concurrence, and so navigating that was a real challenge,” she said.
There are also many challenges associated with capacity issues on all fronts – technical, financial or just having enough personnel to move this entire process forward. This affects GSAs as well as the entities that are supporting the GSAs in their GSP development. “The consultants and the lawyers are all working on limited capacity and what does that mean if you’re consultant isn’t delivering materials to you by the deadlines that are required – and is there recourse?”
Another common challenge is differences in legal or technical opinion. “This is a totally new process so every element of it is up to interpretation,” Ms. Moran said. “There is uncertainty as to what’s actually going to be required from the state. There’s differences in opinion between GSAs who are working jointly to develop a single GSP around the types of analysis that are actually required or legal obligations around all of that. And so this has been a real challenging process that in some ways has held up GSP development in many basins as they try to arrive at consensus around this.”
Outreach is another common challenge. Many GSAs are finding it difficult to engage with the public and very difficult to engage people in the white areas that are without a group or representative entity they can reach out to and help to pull those people in. “The concern really is that if a bill comes to your door, that has the potential to have legal implications down the road or it may trigger litigation and so there’s really this strong desire to reach out to people and make sure that’s mitigated to the extent possible, but it’s challenging to do so.”
There are challenges around water rights. “In many of the GSAs or the basins that we have been working, there are GSAs that maybe have very strong surface water rights and then GSAs representing white areas where maybe they rely solely on groundwater, and so when we think about the requirement for the sustainable groundwater management to ensure sustainability at the basin scale, how did these discrepancies in water rights play out moving forward? That’s a lot of what we’re seeing negotiated at this point in time as well.”
A CONSULTANT’S VIEW OF GSP DEVELOPMENT STATEWIDE
Dan Dooley is a principal with New Current Water and Land LLC, a strategic consulting firm on water and land-related issues mostly for larger agricultural organizations who have significant internal capacity. New Current Water and Land is currently monitoring activities of close to 70 GSAs around the state with a heavy concentration in areas of the critically overdrafted basins. They help people identify key issues, and they have developed policy objectives and position papers for their clients related to allocations, banking, salvageable groundwater markets, and subsidence issues.
“Our business model is telling people what we think they should do and then letting them do it rather than helping them do it ourselves,” he said. “But we also do some work for NGOs including EDF and we’ve worked with The Nature Conservancy in the past on issues related particularly to SGMA.”
Mr. Dooley noted that Dave Orth and he were both involved in the drafting of SGMA and they were both advocates of a single GSA per subbasin. “We failed in that, and now I think there’s something over 300 GSAs for 127 subbasins, so a very, very large number of GSAs. It’s a reflection of disputes, quite candidly. Long standing disputes in many cases that exist in some of these subbasins, and the more overdrafted the basin is in proportion to its overall water supply, the greater the disputes.”
He commended the Exchange Contractors for taking the lead in the Delta Mendota subbasin. “It’s rare that the agencies with greatest surface water supply take the strongest position in formation, management, and development of GSAs and GSPs,” he said.
In other areas, there are relatively few GSAs, but the GSPs are going to reflect separate chapters for member agencies which may or may not be coordinated particularly well. “We see particularly in the major overdrafted basins that coordination among and between GSAs and neighboring subbasins is flimsy at best,” he said.
There are a number of key issues, particularly around modeling and data. A lot of GSAs are putting a lot of effort into building better models, which Mr. Dooley said was not surprising because these are things they understand and know how to do, and people tend to gravitate towards the known. This then leads to questions of trying to determine the extent of overdraft. There is a long history of data supporting estimates of overdraft, and most Southern San Joaquin districts in particular have been monitoring depth to groundwater for decades, he said. “There’s really not a significant mystery in my mind as to the extent of overdraft, but part of the evaluation here is to try to determine that it’s less than the estimates DWR and others have prepared.”
There are also significant disputes between inter-basin and intra-basin flows; in particular, in the San Joaquin basin, there’s a lot of interaction among and between those subbasins so defining those interactions is a critical component, he said. In the southern San Joaquin Valley, there are interactions between the Kings, the Kaweah, and Tule Rivers and further south with the Kern River; all of those ultimately end up in the Tulare Lake Basin, and so those issues are driving a lot of disputes, he said.
There have been emerging fairly high tension discussions about who gets credit for what seepage losses within a basin, which is driven in part by the character of the water under consideration. Is it native groundwater recharge? Is it recharge that comes from surface flows that may be intra-basin surface flows? Or is it seepage that comes from imported water?
“Given the nature of the projects with the state and federal projects in some of the critically overdrafted areas, they transect many of these subbasins so there’s a lot of imported water that impacts these subbasins and people are currently having discussions – I’m tempted to say arguments – over who gets credit for what level of seepage,” Mr. Dooley said.
There are emerging discussions in many of the overdrafted basins about how to allocate pumping credits to the extent that supply cannot be supplemented significantly enough to bring the basin into balance. “We expect to see some subbasins or GSAs punt that issue and say we’re going to determine it as part of our GSP in the first five years, while others are confronting it up front,” he said. “The tendency is to do the easy thing and pro-rate per acre, but that’s not the legally correct way to do it, and it’s in my view quite certain that that kind of approach will provoke litigation and ultimately maybe lead to adjudication of groundwater rights. So a number of organizations and many of our clients have asked us to engage in helping to provide guidance to the GSAs on how to allocate.”
Mr. Dooley noted that there’s been relatively little discussion so far about markets, something he finds surprising. “Clearly in our view, one way to mitigate the economic impacts of less water being available from groundwater sources is to create a value for the groundwater right you have so that you can make an informed decision, whether you grow sileage corn or maybe you market your allocated pumping right to the pistachio grower next door who is willing to pay substantial money for that,” he said. “That obviously will have some impact on how you might mitigate the economic dislocations that could come from less water being available.”
He noted there is a test program going on in Rosedale-Rio Bravo in Kern County that is looking at a modeling game that will explore some opportunities to address questions about how a market might be formed and managed.
“Our estimates are that about three-quarters of a million acres in the six southern San Joaquin Counties will ultimately be fallowed as a result of the implementation of SGMA,” he said. “The question is what do you do with those fallowed lands? Both EDF and TNC are working with local agencies on demonstration projects to try to figure out ways that you could manage those lands for habitat, particularly upland habitat values, as well as how you might manage additional recharge facilities and banking facilities to provide wetland habitat values. There’s currently an effort by EDF to develop a pilot program in Kern County to demonstrate how this might operate with a particular landowner.”
There are a lot of activities going on, but from his perspective, things aren’t particularly rosy, he said. “There are questions about whether the formats of some of the plans we’re hearing will meet the DWR standard. Its arguable that a plan to plan is not going to meet the fundamental standard of SGMA that has been articulated in the guidelines by DWR.”
In some cases, there is lack of data, particularly a lack of data that is more granular than a subbasin, such as what areas in a subbasin are most impacted from an overdrafted area and what areas are in relatively better condition. “It aligns with the haves and have-nots and before you can help resolve those issues, I think you really have to understand the factors that are impacting that,” he said.
Mr. Dooley said that he was a bit astonished by the amount of coordination occurring in the Delta Mendota subbasin. “We don’t see anywhere near that coordination of effort going on in any of these other major overdrafted basins to the south,” he said. “They are still arguing over data and who has what responsibility to do what. We expect that Kern County is a long ways from having put together a plan which in our opinion will meet the standard, and they could be facing the potential of an interim plan being implemented by the State Water Resources Control Board. When we talk about capacity, it’s not clear to me that the State Water Board has the capacity to really effectively do that, but they have the obligation under SGMA.”
Mr. Dooley said that last fall, he spent an intensive five weeks working for the governor trying to help resolve the voluntary settlement agreements related to the implementation of the Bay Delta Water Quality Plan. “If the voluntary agreements are not implemented and the State Board imposes their proposed order, you could see another three-quarters of a million acre-feet of surface supplies coming out of the system and increasing Delta outflows,” he said. “There has been no effective analysis in my mind of how much that might impact the sustainability of groundwater basins in the regions where those flows would come from. So that’s an unknown that’s out there that could drastically affect some subbasins up and down both the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys.”
During the discussion period, an audience member had a comment and a question for Mr. Dooley. “Towards the end, you basically implied that Kern is in bad shape in terms of a truly coordinated GSA that might not past muster in terms of SGMA requirements. That is a very scary comment in this whole issue of SGMA because I can’t think of any place else in California that has the longevity and number of personnel dedicated to water monitoring and management activities, water banking, then Kern. If Kern can’t get its stuff together, we are in real trouble. Beyond that, the big boogeyman here that no one has talked about … how are we going to find compensation for the small growers who have every acre of their ground planted with pistachios and they just can’t come up with fallowed ground to replace the needed water?”
Mr. Dooley noted that the general counsel for the Kern Groundwater Authority for the first couple of years after it was formed resigned because he was concerned that the agency’s members were so divided, he couldn’t see a path forward for them to come to resolution.
“We do a lot of work in Kern County and we’re engaged with all the players down there,” he said. “I think some member agencies of the Groundwater Authority are doing really good work and others are not, and there’s not a level of coordination that we think is necessary for them to come up with a plan that will likely meet muster. I hope our assessment is wrong, but I’m not confident it is.”
“With respect to small growers … we think that one of the things we’re working with EDF on is looking at a funding model that could provide compensation to landowners who fallow land and restore it to habitat,” he said. “One of the interesting things in the framework of the Sacramento Valley voluntary settlement on the Bay Delta Plan is that the water users all came together and agreed to a per-acre foot charge among themselves that could fund fallowing of land to meet flow requirements from the Sacramento River, and it’s $5/an acre-foot for every acre-foot delivered. That’s a substantial fee. Another $2/an acre-foot to support collaborative science. These are sort of game changers. A GSA could impose a charge per acre-foot pump on water pumped, for example, that could be used to fund fallowing of land or managing habitat on fallowed land, if they so choose. You’re going to have to be creative on the funding mechanisms, but I think we believe a combination of a market for allocated pumping credits and some sort of structure where you can pay to fallow land creates an opportunity for landowners to mitigate the impact of SGMA, particularly the smaller land owners.”
“It’s going to be 5 to 10 years before these structures manifest themselves, but I think necessity is the mother of invention, and so as things become clearer and clearer, you may see that,” he added.
“To not pick on Kern County, let me use the Tule subbasin,” Mr. Dooley continued. “I represented most of the water agencies in that subbasin when I was practicing law. There are 467,000 acres overlying the subbasin and projected average annual overdraft is 450,000 acre-feet, almost an acre-foot per acre a year on average. There’s no way you’re going to develop a half a million acre-feet for the Tule subbasin in order to achieve sustainability. It’s not going to happen, so there’s got to be some land that comes out of production, and so the question is how do you determine what land and how do you compensate or provide some mechanism for compensation for those landowners.”