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January 7, 2019

Implementing California’s Groundwater Management Law in a Silo

Across California, landowners, water managers and local government officials are struggling to develop sweeping plans to bring more than 100 groundwater basins and sub-basins into compliance with the most dramatic change to the state’s water laws in over a century.

In the few short years since the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), dozens of conferences, hundreds of analyses produced by academics, hydrologists and water lawyers, and a mind-numbing cascade of meetings have consumed the attention and work of local water managers and those they serve.

This is inevitable and necessary, given the huge area of productive farmland affected and the thousands of public water entities and other local governments that had to suddenly form legally-mandated local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), which in turn must quickly create detailed plans to meet the law’s requirements, as judged by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The law’s mandate to achieve basin “sustainability” by 2040, we are told, will inevitably require the retirement of some as-yet-unknown number of productive acres of farmland. That number is likely to be at least 500,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley alone.

State government leaders and regulators often express their appreciation for the difficulty that will come. They might ameliorate some of the pain by taking SGMA out of its silo.

From the moment SGMA was proposed, issues regarding declining surface water supplies have been shunted aside. Setting aside the various motives of the state’s elected and appointed leaders (and environmental groups) that pushed SGMA in the first place, the result is an illogical march to restrict and reduce groundwater access to farmers, most pronounced in the San Joaquin Valley, while simultaneously choking off those regions’ only means of recharging depleted basins as required by SGMA.

At least four surface water supply realities play outsized roles in how SGMA will impact the economies and social health of entire regions:

Delta exports. Beginning with the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act and continuing with Endangered Species Act and other policies, water deliveries to federal and state contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been in steady and serious decline. Even if the California WaterFix (Delta tunnels) project advances to construction, there will not be a return to historical allocations for south-of-Delta water users, all of whom are in SGMA’s crosshairs.

Above-ground storage capacity. The hope of the 2014 water bond, Proposition 1, was in its text governing the allocation of $2.7 billion for new storage infrastructure. Those provisions, carefully crafted in 2009 by the Schwarzenegger Administration and the late state Senator Dave Cogdill, the author of the bond act, were designed to create a competitive process that valued benefits that only surface storage projects can deliver. The actual result left much to be desired, however. State bureaucrats manipulated a convoluted regulatory process to score competing projects, finally coughing up partial funding for the Sites Reservoir project north of Sacramento and effectively dismissing the Temperance Flat project. Smaller surface storage projects, such as the expansion of Pacheco Reservoir (serving Silicon Valley), received full funding.

Repair and enhancement of existing infrastructure. The voters’ narrow rejection of Proposition 3 in 2018 dealt another blow to regions dependent on imported water to recharge and sustain their groundwater basins. That bond measure included $750 million to repair the damaged Friant-Kern Canal and improve the Friant-Madera Canal. The Friant-Kern Canal has been damaged by subsidence, resulting in the loss of more than half of its conveyance capacity. Critics of this funding blamed farmers for over-drafting the basin and causing the subsidence; they ignore the role they played in forcing greater groundwater pumping by successfully advocating for decreased Delta exports to the San Joaquin Valley.

Increased instream flow requirements. The State Water Board’s push to reduce diversions from San Joaquin River tributaries in order to increase river flows to the Delta has been marked by glaring inequities and the rejection of warnings of independent scientists that simply forcing greater volumes of water down a river will not, absent habitat restoration and other heavy lifts, improve the outlook for native fish species. But the most dissonant aspect of this forced regulatory march is the conflict between SGMA’s mandate to reduce over-reliance on groundwater and State Water Board staff actually suggesting that to mitigate the impact of its flow requirements, growers and cities could just pump more groundwater! Only in California.

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California was the last state in the West to impose groundwater management, but it could be the first state in the West to restrict access to groundwater while simultaneously choking off the very surface water supplies needed to recharge and sustain its groundwater basins. The cruel economic and social fallout over the horizon gets polite lip service.

The agriculture industry and our water managers have been vocal about this disconnect, and we need to be even louder. One big question now is whether our new governor will hear and take action.