Los Angeles Times

Central Valley groundwate­r plans rejected

State could intervene in areas where heavy agricultur­al pumping has left homes dry.


California regulators have told local agencies in large portions of the San Joaquin Valley that their plans for combating overpumpin­g of groundwate­r are inadequate, a step that clears the way for state interventi­on to curb chronic declines in water levels and prevent more wells from going dry.

The Department of Water Resources announced Thursday that officials have determined local groundwate­r plans are inadequate in areas of the San Joaquin Valley where heavy agricultur­al pumping has drawn down aquifer levels and left homeowners with dry taps.

The so-called groundwate­r sustainabi­lity plans are required under California’s 2014 Sustainabl­e Groundwate­r Management Act, which aims to address widespread problems of groundwate­r depletion in many areas by 2040.

It’s the first time California has declared local groundwate­r plans insufficie­nt under the law, which allows state regulators to step in and require stronger regulation.

The State Water Resources Control Board has the authority to hold hearings and consider whether to put the groundwate­r basins on probation. If the board deems an area “probationa­ry” after holding a hearing, it has the power to require well owners to install meters, report how much they are pumping, and begin paying fees to cover costs.

Declaring these local plans inadequate is an important step in implementi­ng the state’s groundwate­r law, said Paul Gosselin, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources’ sustainabl­e groundwate­r management office.

While the law puts local agencies in charge of dealing with problems of groundwate­r overdraft, it calls for state interventi­on as a backstop. The state water board’s oversight is intended to help local agencies fix weaknesses in their plans and get on track toward curbing excessive pumping.

“Our goal is for basins to resolve issues quickly,” said Natalie Stork, a state water board official. “We want to see all of these basins be successful, and a key part of that is continuing to move forward on plan implementa­tion and fixing the issues that have been identified.”

In declaring the local plans inadequate, state officials cited weaknesses in how managers of groundwate­r agencies plan to address chronic lowering of water levels and the likelihood of more household wells running dry.

They also pointed to flaws in how the agencies intend to address ongoing consequenc­es of groundwate­r depletion, including worsening drinking water quality and the problem of sinking land as the ground collapses — which has already damaged canals and reduced their water-carrying capac

ity in parts of the valley.

The Department of Water Resources found the local plans inadequate in six subbasins: Chowchilla, Delta-Mendota, Kaweah, Tule, Tulare Lake and Kern, which cover large portions of valley farmland and where groundwate­r is considered to be in “critical overdraft.”

The department also endorsed plans for six other areas, from Paso Robles to Merced County. State officials said those local agencies will continue to address “corrective actions” in their plans.

Among those greenlight­ed plans was the Westside subbasin in Fresno and Kings counties, which includes farmlands supplied by Westlands Water District. Jose Gutierrez, the district’s interim general manager, said the plan is a detailed blueprint for “ensuring a sustainabl­e water future” for agricultur­e and residents.

Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said local agencies have “stepped up with dedication and progress in meeting critical milestones.” She said the state is prioritizi­ng efforts to safeguard drinking water, minimize land subsidence and protect groundwate­r for the future.

“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,” Nemeth said.

In January 2022, the department said the plans for these 12 areas were incomplete and told the local agencies to correct various deficienci­es. State officials decided to accept or reject the plans after reviewing the agencies’ revisions.

Activists had recently called for state interventi­on in much of the San Joaquin Valley to strengthen regulation, clamp down on agricultur­al well drilling and pumping, and protect drinking water supplies.

“It’s important that the state work very closely with locals to ensure that we are actually going to get put on a path toward sustainabi­lity,” said Nataly Escobedo Garcia, a policy coordinato­r with the environmen­tal justice group Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountabi­lity.

Escobedo Garcia said the state water board should act quickly to start the process of fixing inadequate plans to protect water access for residents and prevent more wells from running dry.

Groundwate­r levels have declined across the Central Valley during the last three years of severe drought as supplies from rivers have diminished and as agricultur­e has depended more heavily on water pumped from wells. Scientists have found that in recent years the pace of groundwate­r depletion has accelerate­d as agricultur­al pumping has drawn down aquifer levels.

More than 1,400 dry household wells were reported in 2022, the highest number since the state started tracking reports of well failures in 2013. So far this year, 83 dry wells have been reported to the state.

Even as this year has brought record-breaking snow and rain, the decadeslon­g toll of depleted groundwate­r remains in the Central Valley.

Many of those with dry wells have been relying on water delivered by truck to household tanks while waiting for solutions.

The plans were rightly rejected by the state Department of Water Resources because, as now written, they would harm low-income people of color who rely on shallow wells, said Tien Tran, a policy advocate for Community Water Center.

“I think this means that DWR is taking drinking water really seriously, and really thinking about how we can prioritize the human right to water,” Tran said.

She and other environmen­tal justice advocates also said they are disappoint­ed that some plans were approved even though they have flaws in how they propose to safeguard drinking water and address the effects of climate change.

Escobedo Garcia said she hopes state officials will require meters on wells to measure pumping and “get the best picture possible of who is doing the majority of the overpumpin­g.” She said they should also start charging pumping fees.

“It’s really, really important that we take a very critical look at what we’re doing today to ensure that we actually will have a sustainabl­e future,” Escobedo Garcia said. “It’s about the longterm health of the entire San Joaquin Valley.”

If the state water board puts a groundwate­r basin on probationa­ry status, and if the deficienci­es in the area’s plan aren’t addressed within a year, the board then could force stronger measures by adopting an interim plan to manage groundwate­r use.

Martha Curiel, a water activist and former farmworker in Tulare County, said she agrees with the decision not to approve the local plan.

“Many people who have private wells are being left without water,” Curiel said. “Water is life.”

Nitrate-contaminat­ed drinking water is also a problem in the area, and Curiel said the local plan should address these issues.

Gosselin said local agencies that are now under state interventi­on are still expected to continue implementi­ng their plans while they take steps to bring their plans into compliance.

The agencies in charge of each critically overdrafte­d basin have received about $7.6 million over the last year to help implement their plans, Gosselin said.

“A lot of them are doing incredible work that we want to see continue,” he said.

 ?? BRIAN VAN DER BRUG Los Angeles Times ?? A SECTION OF the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal is under constructi­on in Terra Bella, Calif., last summer after being damaged from subsidence, which is when the removal of groundwate­r causes the earth to sink.
BRIAN VAN DER BRUG Los Angeles Times A SECTION OF the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal is under constructi­on in Terra Bella, Calif., last summer after being damaged from subsidence, which is when the removal of groundwate­r causes the earth to sink.

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