California regulators have told local authorities in much of the San Joaquin Valley that their plans to curb groundwater overpumping are inadequate, a move that paves the way for government intervention to curb chronic drops in water levels and prevent more wells from being built. fall 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 pumps have lowered aquifers and left rural homeowners with dry taps.
So-called groundwater sustainability plans are required under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which aims to address the widespread problems of groundwater depletion in many areas by 2040.
It’s the first time California has declared local groundwater plans inadequate under the law, allowing state regulators to step in and require stricter regulation.
The State Water Resources Control Board has the authority to hold hearings and consider whether the groundwater basins should be put on trial. If the board deems an area “trial-after holding a hearing it has the power to require well owners to install meters, start reporting how much they are pumping and start 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’ office of sustainable groundwater management.
While the law tasks local agencies with dealing with groundwater overdraft issues, it calls for government intervention as a safety net. The water board’s oversight is designed to help local agencies fix weaknesses in their plans and get on track to curb over-pumping.
“Our goal is for basins to solve problems quickly,” said Natalie Stork, a water board official. “We want all of these basins to be successful, and an important part of that is moving forward in implementing the plan and resolving the identified issues.”
Declaring the local plans inadequate, state officials cited shortcomings in how managers at local groundwater agencies plan to address the chronic lowering of water levels and the likelihood of more household wells going dry.
They also pointed to weaknesses in how the agencies plan to address the lingering effects of groundwater depletion, including deteriorating drinking water quality and the problem of land sinking when the ground collapses – which has already damaged canals and reduced their water-carrying capacity in parts of the region has decreased. valley.
The Department of Water Resources found local plans inadequate in six sub-basins: Chowchilla, Delta Mendota, Kaweah, Tulle, Tulare Lake And corewhich cover large areas of farmland in the valley and where groundwater is considered to be “critically overdrawn”.
The department too approved plans for six other areas, from Paso Robles to Merced County. State officials said those local agencies will continue to include “corrective actions” in their plans.
One such green-lit plan was the Westside Subbasin in Fresno and Kings counties, which includes farmland provided by the 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 Department of Water Resources, said local agencies have “moved with dedication and progress toward critical milestones.” She said the state is prioritizing efforts to protect drinking water, minimize land subsidence and protect groundwater for the future.
“The implementation of these plans, which will require difficult adjustments along the way, will ultimately ensure a safe and reliable groundwater supply for future generations,” said Nemeth.
In January 2022, the department said plans for these 12 areas were incomplete and told local authorities to correct several 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 regulations, curb the drilling and pumping of agricultural wells, and protect drinking water supplies.
“It is important for the state to work closely with local people to make sure we are actually moving towards sustainability,” said Nataly Escobedo Garcia, policy coordinator with the environmental justice group Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability.
Escobedo Garcia said the state water board must act quickly to begin the process of identifying inadequate plans to protect residents’ access to water and prevent more wells from running dry.
Groundwater levels in the Central Valley have fallen over the last three years of severe drought as river supplies have declined and agriculture has become more dependent on water pumped from wells. Scientists have found that the rate of groundwater depletion has accelerated in recent years as agricultural pumping has lowered aquifers.
More than 1,400 dry household wells were reported in 2022, the highest number since the state began tracking reports of well failures in 2013.
There have been 83 dry wells so far this year reported to the state.
While this year has brought record-breaking snow and rainfall records, the decades-long toll of depleted groundwater in the Central Valley continues.
Many of those with dry wells relied on water delivered to household tanks by truck in anticipation of fixes.
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 attorney for Community Water Center.
“I think this means DWR is really taking drinking water 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 of the plans have been approved, even though they have flaws in how they propose to protect drinking water and address the impacts of climate change.
Escobedo Garcia said she hopes state officials will need meters on wells to measure the pumping and get “the best possible picture of who is doing most of the pumping over.” She said they also had to charge pump costs.
“It is very, very important that we take a very critical look at what we are doing today to make sure that we actually have a sustainable future,” said Escobedo Garcia. “It’s about the long-term health of the entire San Joaquin Valley.”
If the water board constructs a groundwater basin probation statusand if deficiencies in the area plan are not corrected within a year, the board can enforce stricter action by adopting an interim plan to manage groundwater use.
Martha Curiel, a local water activist and former farm worker in Tulare County, said she agrees with the decision not to approve the local plan.
“Many people who have private wells are 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 now under state intervention are still expected to continue to implement their plans as they take steps to bring their plans into line.
The agencies responsible for each critical overdraft basin received about $7.6 million in the past year to help implement their plans, Gosselin said.
“Many of them are doing incredible work that we would like to see continue,” he said.