In March 2023, the Department of Water Resources issued final determinations on groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) submitted by the groundwater basins in January of 2022 that were ultimately determined to be incomplete. After the groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) were given 180 days to correct the deficiencies and revise their plans, six of the twelve basin plans were determined to be inadequate, triggering possible intervention by the State Water Board. At the April 4 meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board, the Board discussed the options for moving forward.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires groundwater basins to be managed sustainably, which the legislation defines as operating the groundwater basin within its sustainable yield and without experiencing any undesirable results. Undesirable results are defined as significant and unreasonable occurrences of declining groundwater levels, reduction of groundwater storage, land subsidence, seawater intrusion, groundwater quality degradation, and depletion of interconnected surface waters.
Locals at the local level define what is significant and unreasonable, which is then articulated in the groundwater sustainability plan. However, the legislation does not require GSAs to address undesirable results occurring before 2015.
Key elements of a groundwater sustainability plan include a description of groundwater conditions, criteria to define sustainable management, monitoring to measure how the basin is progressing towards sustainability, and projects and management actions that will be implemented to achieve sustainability in the basin.
DWR’s Determination of Adequacy
After the groundwater sustainability is submitted to the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the Department checks it for completeness and each section is reviewed for substantial compliance with the law, regulations, and guidelines.
Paul Gosselin, Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management for the Department, said that for this initial review, staff focused on whether the GSP had sufficiently met the sustainable management criteria.
“This is important for several reasons,” he said. “Every plan that gets submitted will have flaws, deficiencies, and uncertainties, but the primary driver with SGMA is a different lens than just eliminating your overdraft in your basin. It’s a matter of looking at every groundwater user and significant infrastructure related to subsidence. How is the basin being managed? How does it affect them to avoid those undesirable results? And so, at least initially, we’re making sure they are approaching this the way SGMA has laid out and fully characterizing all the groundwater uses and users and characterizing those undesirable results and how they’re going to address those, and that faces them in the right direction towards sustainability.”
Even with the approved plans, the Department included recommended corrective actions, as the deficiencies didn’t rise to the level of precluding approval. These recommendations include updating water budgets, clarifying aspects of the plan, broadening the monitoring network, and improving stakeholder engagement. In addition, although most basins did incorporate the Department’s climate change guidance, further climate change analysis should be included in plan updates.
The 21 critically-overdrafted basins submitted their groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) to the Department of Water Resources (DWR) in January 2020. SGMA allowed for multiple GSAs and GSPs within a basin, provided a coordination agreement exists. The critically-overdrafted basins submitted 46 groundwater sustainability plans; DWR completed the initial review and deemed 12 of the 21 basin plans incomplete.
For those plans considered incomplete, the GSAs had 180 days to correct the deficiencies and resubmit the plans. Six of the twelve resubmitted plans were approved: Eastern San Joaquin, Merced, Westside, Paso Robles, Cuyama, and Kings Basin. The Kings Basin was the only multi-GSP basin plan that was approved.
After consultation with the State Water Board, six basin plans were deemed inadequate: Chowchilla Subbasin, Tulare Lake Subbasin, Delta Mendota Subbasin, Kaweah Subbasin, Tule Subbasin, and Kern Subbasin. The inadequacies included groundwater level impacts; not fully disclosing and evaluating all impacts to groundwater users, uses, and wells; land subsidence near critical infrastructure without explaining how that will not be significant and unreasonable; and not characterizing and fully disclosing all the constituents of concern.
Mr. Gosselin noted that for those basins with multiple plans, the evaluation was on a basin-wide scale; they did not evaluate sufficiency on an individual plan basis. “So, if even one plan within a multi-plan basin had a deficiency, that was significant enough for us to deem the basin inadequate. That will potentially affect the other plans within the basin because they need to use the same data, the same methodology, and characterize the basin in a similar manner.”
Also, the Madera basin plan was deemed incomplete in October; they resubmitted it on March 24.
As for overall SGMA implementation, all the groundwater basins subject to SGMA have submitted their plans. So far, the Department has approved 18 basins out of 94. The 63 non-critically overdrafted basins submitted 65 plans in January of 2022. The Department is working to review those plans; they have already approved four. The Department plans to release the remaining 59 determinations in batches on a quarterly basis. The Department has until January 2024 to complete their evaluations. Nine basins have approved alternative plans.
State Board Intervention Process
Natalie Stork, Supervising Engineering Geologist for the Groundwater Management Program at the State Water Resources Control Board, then discussed the Board’s intervention process. If a groundwater sustainability plan is determined to be incomplete, the State Board can step in. Ms. Stork noted that the Board can only step in when local efforts are inadequate. Intervention authorities are triggered by deadlines and deficiencies. The Board’s role is intended to be temporary and not a replacement for a groundwater sustainability plan.
Now that six plans have been determined to be inadequate, the next step is for the Board to consider taking action. SGMA sets minimum timelines; the Board can choose to move slower or not to take any action.
If the Board decides to move forward, the next step would be to send out a notice for a probationary hearing. SGMA requires that the Board provide a minimum 90-day notice of the hearing to cities and counties in the basin and a minimum 60-day notice to all known groundwater pumpers and those proposing to pump from the basin. At the probationary hearing, the Board decides whether probation is warranted for the basin. The hearing is an open public process where people can provide public comments.
If the Board decides to put a basin on probation, the Board identifies the deficiencies and actions to remedy those deficiencies. Ms. Stork noted that while DWR has identified deficiencies in their determinations on plan adequacy, the Board has the discretion to add or remove deficiencies as needed. If the deficiencies aren’t cured during that period of one year or longer, the Board has the option to issue a notice for a public hearing to adopt an interim plan.
“It’s important to note that this process is discretionary,” said Ms. Stork. “This is all at the discretion of the Board. And those decisions on probation and interim plans are made at an open and transparent board hearing. Also, a GSA can exit this process at any time; if they work to fix the issues that cause their plan to be inadequate, they can petition the Board to leave state intervention.”
Once a basin is put on probation, groundwater pumpers must begin collecting extraction information within 90 days; this is so the Board has the data it needs in case it needs to develop an interim plan. The Board can require meters. Extraction reports are due in February for the previous water year and include the well’s location, pumping capacity, monthly extractions, where the water is used, and what it’s used for.
The statute requires the Board to recover the costs of state intervention; these costs are recouped through fees tied to each groundwater extraction report. The fees, adopted by emergency regulation in 2017, are comprised of a $300 base filing fee, a volumetric rate dependent on the level of state intervention, and an automatic late fee for those who don’t file on time. The fees are subject to change if needed to fully recoup the program costs. The Board can also direct the GSA to conduct special studies, which would result in additional costs beyond these fees.
There are waivers for fees for low-income groundwater extractors and public water systems serving disadvantaged communities as long as they report on time.
The statute explicitly exempts domestic well owners, called de minimis pumpers, who only pump two acre-feet or less per year for domestic use. However, the Board has the option to include them if they pump a significant amount of water in the basin.
After a period of at least one year, the Board can develop and implement an interim plan for the groundwater basin. The interim plan consists of corrective actions to get the basin back on track, including a schedule for the corrective actions, monitoring to measure how those corrective actions are working, and enforcement to ensure the plan is followed. The interim plan is not meant to replace a groundwater sustainability plan; it’s intended to get the basin back on track while locals work on fixing their plans.
“It’s critical that GSAs continue to work on implementing their plans,” said Ms. Stork. “Our goal is to get basins back on track and for local management to be successful. For that to work, they need to keep implementing the good parts of their plans while they work on the other parts.”
Board considerations for moving forward
Ms. Stork noted that this is the first time state intervention authorities have been triggered, so the Board needs to consider the timelines for the hearings and how to prioritize the basins.
“We can’t feasibly hold the hearings for all six basins at once; we’re going to need to space them out, at least somewhat,” she said.
Address all six basins in close succession over three to six months, paced out at one or two hearings a month.
Address one basin at a time more slowly over two to three years. Since this is a new process for the Board, it might be helpful to give more time to work out issues and deal with individual basins and the groups, interested parties, and GSAs within these basins.
Address three basins first and the other basins six to twelve months later. This would allow the Board to address the basins where the situation is most urgent and possibly provide time for other basins to fix issues and for staff to work more intensively with people in those basins.
Each option has a different timeline. Ms. Stork said the timeline on the slide is the fastest the process could move. If the process were to begin today, staff could send out notices in May and hold a hearing in September. If the Board decided to put the basin on probation, the extraction reports would start in December.
Groundwater extractions are reported for the water year, so if measurement begins in December, the water year ends on September 31, 2024, and the first reports would be due in February 2025. Fees are due April 1 of each year or 30 days after a bill is sent out.
Prioritizing basins for intervention
Staff then discussed the criteria the Board might consider when prioritizing which basins to start the intervention process. These include groundwater extractions, drinking water impacts, land subsidence, water quality degradation, plan implementation, and coordination.
The bar chart shows the overdraft for the six basins. The bar on the left shows the average annual groundwater extractions as reported in the required annual reports for water years 2019-2021.
The lighter color on the right bar represents the sustainable yield, which is what the GSA has determined is the most groundwater that can be extracted from the basin without reaching an undesirable result; the darker color on the top of the bar represents the average annual overdraft.
“For example, Delta Mendota is reporting no overdraft, meaning their average annual extractions are lower than their sustainable yield, whereas the other basins do have significant overdraft, with Tule and Kern having the highest with over 500,000 acre-feet per year of overdraft,” said John Coburn, Engineering Geologist with the Board’s Groundwater Management Program.
The chart is the same data on the bar chart, with the additional column which shows the average annual extraction as a percent of sustainable yield.
“Tule has a high percentage of the average annual extraction with 549%,” said Mr. Coburn. “It’s also worth pointing out that Tule and Kern have the highest overdraft with over 500,000 acre-feet per year.”
Drinking water impacts
The six basins are shown on the map below. The data is from a dry well susceptibility analysis that DWR conducted in coordination with the Water Board, which uses current groundwater elevations and projects modeled future groundwater levels to locate where domestic wells could run dry if groundwater levels continue to decline.
The gray colors represent a one-square-mile block with domestic wells, but none are susceptible to going dry. The red and orange colors increasingly show the susceptible wells, with the darkest color representing 50 domestic wells in a one-square-mile block susceptible to going dry.
The Kaweah Basin has 791 domestic wells that are susceptible, followed by Tulare Lake with 698 and Tule with 492.
The slide on the map below includes public water systems, shown in light blue and gray. The light blue color represents public water systems that currently receive emergency drought assistance from the State Water Board, and gray represents public water systems with the potential for water outages in the near future.
The slide below includes the reported dry wells in 2022. The data came from the voluntary reporting system managed by DWR, where domestic well users can report if their well has gone dry. The blue dots represent wells that were reported dry during 2022.
“Reported dry wells correlate with the projected susceptible dry wells. Additionally, Kaweah, Tulare Lake, and Tule have the highest both susceptible and reported dry wells,” said Mr. Coburn.
Land subsidence occurs when large amounts of groundwater are extracted, and the land surface sinks. Subsidence can damage infrastructure such as canals and levees and increase flood risks.
The slide below shows satellite data for land subsidence that has occurred since SGMA went into effect in January 2015. The darker green colors represent up to one foot of subsidence, and the red colors indicate up to seven feet of subsidence that has occurred since June 2015.
Mr. Coburn pointed out the significant trough of subsidence that spans Tulare Lake, Kaweah, and Tule subbasins. “We calculated the average subsidence for each of these basins,” he said. “Chowchilla and Tule have an average of 2.1 feet of subsidence across the basin, Kaweah at 2, and Tulare Lake at 1.8.
Water quality degradation
The figure on the slide below uses data from the Board’s Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) program overlaid with domestic well locations to illustrate the concentration of domestic wells that are at a high or medium risk of experiencing water quality impacts from six constituents that have been or that have the potential to be exacerbated by lowering groundwater levels.
The figure below shows only the data for nitrate, a shallow constituent that can be pulled into wells as groundwater levels decline. Additionally, only groundwater wells with construction information drawing water from above the Corcoran clay are shown. This is because the Corcoran clay spans much of this region, separating the aquifer into an upper and lower, and wells that draw from the upper aquifer are likely to have problems as groundwater levels decline due to the susceptibility of nitrates and other shallow constituents.
Natalie Stork noted that annual reports were due on April 1 for all GSAs with a groundwater sustainability plan. So all six basins have submitted their annual reports. Board staff will evaluate the reports to determine how plan implementation is progressing and will provide an update at a later meeting. This could include the implementation of allocation plans and the development of mitigation plans for domestic and agricultural wells.
The Department noted deficiencies related to coordination in the Kern and Delta Mendota subbasins. Ms. Stork pointed out that it will take more time to untangle coordination issues within a basin which could delay progress, leaving them further behind on the required 20-year implementation timeline. She said this might be another reason to consider acting more quickly in basins with these issues.
In conclusion …
Ms. Stork concluded by noting that the Board now has new resources on its website. This includes a GSA lookup map tool that folks can use to determine if their basin is one of the six with inadequate plans, several new FAQs, and a water quality map tool released last September aimed at helping GSAs, SGMA practitioners, NGOs, and others involved with groundwater management.
During the discussion period, the Board discussed the need to collect extraction data. The extraction data is necessary so that the Board will have data on which to develop an interim plan if needed. It’s also the basis for which fees for Board intervention are recouped. There was a discussion about requiring meters and alternative methods that could be used. Some public commenters noted that metering is expensive and quite logistics-intensive to set up.
Interim plans were discussed somewhat, with questions about whether an interim plan would include ‘physical solutions’ (such as recharge basins or water transfers). Board members seemed to lean towards demand management (pumping cutbacks) as the primary means. Vice Chair D’Adamo said that the Board doesn’t really have the expertise to implement a physical solution; such a proposal would be better brought back by the GSA as part of a petition to exit the intervention process.
So what’s next?
It was an informational item, so the Board took no action at the meeting. Director Firestone said that to her, the most impactful indicators of the inadequacies are the drinking water impacts, land subsidence, and the exacerbation and worsening of water quality pollution. Of the six basins, the Tule, Kaweah, Tulare Lake, and Kern, not necessarily in that order, to her, are the most important. Board member Nichole Morgan agreed with those being the priorities. (The remaining Board members did not indicate what basins they might consider priorities.)
Chair Esquivel noted that the budget process is still unfolding, which will determine what resources they will have in the coming year. He suggested they agreed to revisit the issue in two months – June 2023), to which the other Board members agreed.