Eric Averett is General Manager with the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, which is one of several water districts within Kern County. Kern County is the largest basin in the state, is designated as critically overdrafted, and is arguably one of the most complex with respect to the number of water interests that are involved. In addition, they have had to deal with approximately 500,000 acres of undistricted or ‘white land’ areas. In this presentation from the Western Groundwater Congress, Mr. Averett discusses how his district and Kern County have been grappling with how to establish groundwater pumping allocations.
SGMA AND WATER RIGHTS
The real challenge is how to allocate water in a basin where there are different perspectives on how much groundwater users should be allowed to pump, Mr. Averett said. It’s analogous to a piece of pie that you have to figure out how to divide it, and in an overdrafted basin, the pie is very small, he said.
“We really wrestled with that issue – in part because technically we don’t have information that really can inform us to the exact amount of water, but also because of what I call the circular SGMA allocation,” he said.
He presented a graphic and explained it as such: “On the very top, it says caps or allocations are clearly part of the solution, and in a critically overdrafted basin, there’s not enough water to meet our overdraft, so there will be some reduction in groundwater pumping. However, we don’t want to impose that because likely landowners are going to be very upset because we are impacting their economic viability, so there’s going to be likely legal challenges associated with that. From a GSA standpoint, we can’t determine water rights, so we have landowners saying we are violating their water rights, and we say we’re not modifying them because we certainly don’t have the right to.”
“So somehow, we get to negotiate this method of allocation based on water rights, which in California aren’t clearly defined, at least from a layperson’s perspective,” Mr. Averett continued. “I have appealed to many people and said, how are we supposed to do this, and they say, ‘we don’t know.’”
DIVIDING UP THE PIE
From a technical standpoint, few GSAs within the Central Valley have had the time, the resources, or the information to really define how much groundwater is within their basin.
“I can speak for Kern County and say we just haven’t had the technical studies and analysis that is necessary,” he said. “So it presents a challenge when you’re sitting in front of a landowner. I’ve done workshops with landowners for years and they’ve always had one question: How much can I pump? And that depends on how much native yield or how much sustainable yield there is within the basin.”
“From a legal perspective, there doesn’t appear to be one clear and consistent method within the state of California so when you talk about groundwater rights, what does that mean? It depends on what basin you’re referring to and which one has been adjudicated and on what basis that adjudication follows.”
Within Kern County, there are numerous landowners with vastly different perspectives and self-interests that are often in opposition to one another, so that presents challenges when trying to determine allocations when one landowner says it should be based on first in time, another says it should be based on historical pumping, and yet another says it should be based on proximity to the source.
There’s a whole list of issues that people will advance and the pie is only one size, Mr. Averett pointed out. The chart shows the various types of users within the basin, each of whom has an expectation that in the allocation, there will be some slice of the pie that is reserved for them, he said. Each of them wants that piece of pie large enough to cover certainly their existing demand and hopefully something that allows them to continue to grow and economically advance their interests.
But in an overdrafted basin, there’s not enough and SGMA requires that basins be brought into balance to achieve sustainability. The water budget is predicated on the change in storage, and DWR has said that sustainability is based on avoiding undesirable results, which are manifest based on change in storage and water quality and other factors.
However, groundwater doesn’t stay within the region it’s placed within, Mr. Averett said. “For example, my water district may bring in 500,000 acre-feet and recharge it into the basin, but the benefit of that water moves and disperses throughout the basin. So from an allocation standpoint, some would say, ‘I’m receiving a benefit, I’m going to pump it, that’s groundwater.’ Well, actually it’s not, it’s surface water that’s stored under the ground. So in Kern County, we’ve been really wrestling with, how do you allocate in a very, very complex basin, this – remember, we don’t have a clearly defined groundwater component and we’ve got this merger of surface water and groundwater interaction that people I think in some cases have mistakenly assumed is a groundwater supply.”
Bottom line, allocations of groundwater should be reasonable and defensible. “Our goal is to come up with an initial allocation that people can live with and frankly buy us some time so we can develop the technical information that’s necessary,” said Mr. Averett. “I’ll be rather candid. Somebody within the state is going to legally test the method of allocation. And I don’t want it to be us. I’d rather we be lagging behind and watching what the courts do and learn from other people’s example and not have to fund a legal fight that may rage for a number of years.”
So they are taking an approach that gives flexibility using estimates while acknowledging the uncertainty. “We’re using an estimate for the native yield, and we define native yield as that true groundwater supply which is based on the natural, normal, unavoidable recharge that occurs within the basin and hopefully we can quantify that along with the contributions from subsurface flows,” he said.
To inform the estimates, they have completed a groundwater model for the basin that gives a sense of what that native yield value is, but instead of declaring native yield to be x acre-feet per acre, they are using a range and giving the GSPs the discretion to select the value that’s within the range.
Mr. Averett acknowledged that the slide is a bit dated as the range for native yield has yet to be agreed upon (Note: This is a presentation from September 2019, 6 months before the GSP was due.) At the time, they were hoping the range would be from .15 to .3 AF per acre, which means if the landowner is in an undistricted area and is solely dependent on groundwater, that’s what would be available to them ultimately by 2040.
“The policy basis of the estimate was to allow us to avoid disputes, recognizing and deferring the advancement of any particular claim or method of allocation until we had better clarity from other basins and other regions within the state,” he said.
Mr. Averett then highlighted some of the methods for allocating the groundwater that have been proposed. He noted that all of the proposals have some certain compelling value and justification, so he wouldn’t necessarily discount any of them.
Migrating groundwater is a big issue, he said. “I literally remember an engineer sitting across from me and saying, ‘there’s a magic subsurface channel that brings water to my area.’ That’s not magic, that’s my district. But we really are wrestling with this, because groundwater does move and migrate. We have very large water banking projects within Kern County that import significant amounts of surface water that is stored within the groundwater basin, and that water ultimately spreads out and moves to other areas and mitigates potential impacts that would be otherwise manifest in the context of the six undesirable results within SGMA.”
Equity is also an important issue that, if it hasn’t come up already in other basins, it will, especially once the GSPs are implemented. “Trust me, on February 1, 2020, landowners will become involved like they haven’t been before,” he said. “And they will begin questioning, so the point of the allocation is to have a sound reason and basis for it, because you will have very upset landowners within your district or GSA office, coming and asking why you selected this. So we recognize that there’s not a method or way to get agreement amongst all of the users, and so hopefully this acknowledgement of an interim estimate until we can develop additional information buys us time to do so.”
There are many different possible ways to divide the pie, but they are starting with the simplest way which is proportional to acreage. “I’ve listened to all the arguments from my landowners,” he said. “I’ve had my board members arguing heatedly, saying ‘I’ve been here since the 1900s, why can’t I pump more than this person who just developed their ground in the last 5 years?’ and this person says, ‘you’ve been abusing the groundwater basin for 95 years and I just barely came in, and I’ve been a good steward.’ Both sides have equal weight and we have to recognize that, so right now, what we’re proposing is proportional to acreage; both developed land as well as undeveloped land will receive their allocation. Again, this is on an interim basis. It is a proposal; it has yet to be consummated in a coordination agreement.”
ALLOCATING GROUNDWATER WITHIN THE ROSEDALE-RIO BRAVO WATER STORAGE DISTRICT
The Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, spanning 44,000 acres, is one of the smaller water districts in Kern County. The land use is primarily agriculture, predominantly almonds, but 9,000 acres is urban development in the northeast corner of Bakersfield. Groundwater pumping is the source for all overlying water demands.
“Fortunately for the last 25 years, my district has been balanced, and that means we’ve imported enough surface water to offset the total consumptive use,” Mr. Averett said. “By using DWR’s projections, we show a minor deficit going into the future because we have to assume reduced State Water Project reliability.”
“We also are managing about 10,000 acres of undistricted or white lands; we didn’t formally annex them, but we included them within our management plan,” he continued. “So we have landowners with both perspectives: some with a reliable water supply and others with zero water supply, so coordination and stakeholder meetings have been interesting.”
The slide shows the water budget for the District, so for the 44,000 acres, there is 11,397 acre-feet of native yield. That native yield allocation is tied to the land; the allocation for undeveloped lands cannot be transferred to another property. Precipitation is accounted for by utilizing a satellite-based ET system. The surface water supplies come from the California Aqueduct or the Friant-Kern Canal.
“We have a deficit of about 1200 acre-feet; however, the total overdraft or deficit because of that white land areas that we’re managing is about 14,000 acre-feet,” Mr. Averett said. “My district will achieve sustainability actually by 2020 for the district area, but we have a stepped glidepath so by 2025, almost everything has been balanced.”
He explained how this works for a Rosedale landowner. “Let’s assume that I select the higher value of native yield of .3 acre-feet per year. Precipitation is about .48 acre-feet per year, and the project water is about 2.3 acre-feet per year, so that is a sustainable yield of about 3 acre-feet per year. But most of my developed ground is irrigated agriculture, and almonds need about 3.5 acre-feet per year, so that leaves a deficit of about .42 acre feet.”
It’s a very different situation in the undistricted areas, where there is no surface water allocation, so the deficit is 1.8 acre-feet per acre per year.
“What we’re proposing to do for these managed areas is every year, we will adjust them down by 5% so by 2040, that deficit is 0, so it’s just linearly proportional through time,” he said. “We do give them some flexibility with a five year water budget, so we account for the amount of water that’s available within the first five years and they can manage is however they choose. They can use all 12 acre-feet in the first three years and then completely pull out, but they have a five year budget to manage within. That hopefully gives them some flexibility, but it also more importantly buys us time as the GSA to develop a water supply on their behalf.”
“I don’t require them to pull out one acre of ground to meet the 5% reduction in the first year as that causes economic harm,” he continued. “But what I do is give them five years so they can frontload their reliance on groundwater while we develop projects to try and supplement their water supplies, so it allows us to meet those requirements of 5% per year, but gives the landowner some flexibility.”
The issue of equity is important; it’s come up in his district and others that have developed water supplies and less reliance on groundwater.
“I have had my board look at me and say, ‘Why should we reduce at all when the folks in the white lands are starting out with 2.5 acre-feet of groundwater and you’re telling me, because I’ve been paying the state project bill, I’m going to start having .5 acre-feet of groundwater and you’re going to cut me down? No, don’t cut me down until the 15th year when my reliance on groundwater is the same as theirs.’ And there’s an equity argument there that I completely understand,” said Mr. Averett. “They are saying, we’ve been doing what we should have, so why are we being cutdown on the same level or the same basis as them? This is a very compelling argument and it was hard for me to justify or explain why we were taking the approach we were.”
Another issue are the landowners who are proximate to a source of recharge, whether it’s subsurface flows from the Sierra or proximate to the Kern River. “They are saying, this is water that may not get to the rest of the basin so they shouldn’t share if you will in this natural normal unavoidable recharge component; their native yield should be something different than mine. Mine should be slightly higher. There may be a solid technical basis to that, but to advance that in the absence of that information creates nothing but conflict, and so we’re trying to avoid that. The range hopefully preserves all positions and allows us to move forward while we collect that information.”
“The approach we’re taking is that this range preserves the various positions amongst users within the basin,” he continued. “We do not have time to wrestle through each of the issues. Some of the issues are technical, some of them are legal, and some of them are policy, and we just don’t have the information or the time, because of our need to get a GSP in and a coordination agreement to navigate each of them.”
Mr. Averett reminded that the groundwater allocations are available only for overlying use; a landowner can’t subsidize part of his demand by taking this groundwater allocation from an undeveloped parcel or area and moving it over.
GROUNDWATER MARKETS AND TRANSFERS
They are working on a concept for allowing transfers and having a groundwater market. “We are working on the idea of being able to transfer this native yield from parcel to parcel,” Mr. Averett said. “Most of my district is developed and so the groundwater transfers likely won’t involve undeveloped parcels. If they do, we’ll probably need to do some environmental analysis, but the idea behind it is to avoid stranding the asset; that landowners need to be able to manage the resource to allow them to move it to the highest and best economic good. That may mean a landowner fallows their alfalfa and has greater economic opportunity by transferring that to their neighbor across the street who is growing some other higher value crop. We want to create opportunities to do that.”
“However, we want to do it in the context or framework of SGMA and the undesirable results, and so we have a groundwater model that will evaluate the trades and transfers to make sure that we’re not moving contaminant plumes or creating pumping depressions and other things,” he continued. “It’s important that any type of transfer system has a system of accounting, and so we have a water budget that’s based on an APM and so every APM within our district will receive a water budget and that district will deposit the amount of water that is available to that APM that year. Then that APM, based on a satellite system, will have deductions on a monthly basis for the amount of consumptive use. It gives landowners information, just like your checking account.”
“Our landowners will handle that or manage their APMs very much like a checking account as these are business people who will be able to evaluate it they need to go into the market because they have another irrigation cycle coming up so they will look for a willing seller, or maybe they may be in a position to not put in a fall crop which will leave them with a surplus, so they may decide to go in as a seller and hopefully generate some additional value.”