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Friday, April 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California groundwater management agencies falling behind on conservation goals

California may move to take over groundwater basins after plans to sustainably manage groundwater fell short of state standards.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California water authorities say some regional groundwater sustainability plans to control aquifers do not stack up to the state’s legal standards to protect water resources in future droughts. 

Six of 12 critically overdrafted groundwater basins — which are critical to storing and supplying water — could end up under the state water board's authority after being found out of compliance with state water management law.

The Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board oversee all work and accountability on 515 basins under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The law emphasizes local control and requires local groundwater sustainability agencies to develop and implement plans that will bring groundwater basins into balanced conditions by 2040.

California ordered groundwater sustainability agencies to submit new drafts of their plans to manage and conserve water aquifer resources for the next two decades. In January 2022, the state Department of Water Resources found plans in 12 basins to be incomplete, where significant deficiencies precluded approval. Agencies had 180 days to correct deficiencies and resubmit plans for reevaluation, and the state agencies reported that decisions on whether to approve these plans would be released this spring. 

On Thursday, the agencies announced decisions on groundwater sustainability plans covering 12 groundwater subbasins in Central California.

Six of the 12 basins won approval as long as they take some corrective actions to keep the basins in an approved status. Those lie throughout the central and southern portions of the state.

The plans recommended for approval involved critical analysis of groundwater levels, water quality and interconnected surface waters to develop and refine sustainable groundwater management criteria, the state said. 

The plans for the remaining six basins have been deemed inadequate and are transitioning to the State Water Board for state intervention under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. These include the Chowchilla Subbasin in Madera and Merced counties, the Delta-Mendota Subbasin in western San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Madera, and San Benito counties, Kaweah Subbasin in Tulare and Kings counties, the Tule Subbasin in Tulare County, the Tulare Lake Subbasin in Kings County and Kern Subbasin in Kern County, 

The agencies overseeing these basins must begin implementing their plans as soon as they are adopted locally, even if basins are under state intervention. 

The basins deemed inadequate did not appropriately address deficiencies in sustainable management criteria, which provide an operating range for how groundwater levels prevent effects like overdraft, land subsidence and groundwater levels within 20 years. The state said these plans did not analyze and justify continued groundwater level declines and land subsidence, and “lacked a clear understanding of how the management criteria may cause undesired effects on groundwater users in the basins or critical infrastructure.”

Paul Gosselin, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources’ Sustainable Groundwater Management Office, said the state does not define what sustainability is. Instead, “you define what you don’t want to have happen," he said.

"Plan approval does not mean that we aren't expecting the plans to adapt and look different over time," he added.

The basins with approvals will work with the department and report on progress implementing those plans. Every five years, the state expects updates on approved plans.

Each basin deemed inadequate will be under the State Water Resources Control Board’s jurisdiction, which may designate the basin probationary after providing public notice and holding a hearing. After the board identifies deficiencies that led to intervention, and potential actions to remedy deficiencies, interested parties can comment or give technical information to the board. 

Agencies overseeing a basin under probation must fix problems with their plan or the board will take over and develop an interim plan, said Natalie Stork, supervising engineering geologist for the board’s Groundwater Management Program.

Stork said they have not yet set dates for public hearings, but are giving agencies time to fix their plans and have a chance to avoid probation. She said a minimum of one year must pass between being placed on probation, until the state can develop an interim plan.

“State intervention and oversight is a critical step in making sure these basins succeed in achieving sustainable groundwater conditions,” the department said in a statement. “The ultimate goal is to have all basins return to local management with a clear path on how to achieve sustainability within 20 years of their original plan submittal.”

The critically overdrafted basins each received $7.6 million in temporary grant funding to help implement their plans. State drought assistance programs and the California Department of Conservation’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing program are helping critically overdrafted areas reduce dependence on groundwater and fast-track reaching local sustainability goals. Gosselin said the department has been advising some agencies on designing funding plans in order to support their sustainability plans for decades.

Of the 94 groundwater basins required to submit plans, the Department of Water Resources has provided determinations for 24 basins and is currently reviewing 61 plans from high- and medium-priority basins.

“Since the onset of SGMA, local agencies have stepped up with dedication and progress in meeting critical milestones,” said department director Karla Nemeth. 

“Protecting domestic wells, minimizing land subsidence and protecting groundwater resources are all state priorities. Implementation of these plans, which will require difficult adjustments as we go, will ultimately provide a safe and reliable groundwater supply for communities for generations to come.”

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Categories / Environment, Government, Regional

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