Between the mountains and the sea Ventura county is an oasis of agriculture nestled on the coast between the sprawl of Los Angeles and the high-end parts of Santa Barbara. Doc Searls via Flickr
The formal birth of new agencies to keep California’s groundwater basins sustainable took place all over the state this summer. Like infants anywhere, dozens of new groundwater sustainability agencies present a range of appearances. Some are placid, some squall. Some have everything they need in order to develop. Some don’t.
How will they develop? That depends on how well pumpers, who rely on groundwater, accept the inevitable restrictions needed under the law requiring sustainable management. Some, particularly farmers, will lose automatic access to the water they want. One water manager said their path to accepting new limits echoes the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
Under Decentralized Groundwater Reform, Local Agencies Face a Challenge to Carve Out Jurisdictions
In Ventura County, an oasis of agriculture nestled on the coast between the sprawl of Los Angeles and the high-end parts of Santa Barbara, pumpers are going through those stages. Nearly a dozen new groundwater agencies oversee basins, around the Santa Clara River or nearby watersheds, that irrigate both seaside flatlands, carpeted by strawberries and celery, and low hills full of avocado and lemon trees. In 2015, more than $2 billion worth of crops were grown on 100,000 acres.
Tony Morgan, deputy general manager of the United Conservation District, said, “it’s a prickly situation our friends in Sacramento have put us in.” He must “weave jurisdictions together and not stomp too hard on people’s toes.” But the work is going apace — plans are evolving so fast, public drafts are expected next month.
California’s Department of Water Resources designated 11 Ventura basins as needing immediate attention — or “high priority.” Each now has its own management. Two crucial players — the United Water Conservation District and the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency — have long dealt with groundwater crises, so Ventura has a head start. The agencies can monitor pumping, calculate yield and create agency governing boards including city and county governments, farmers and environmentalists.
Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West
A Groundwater Crisis Hit Ventura Decades Before the Drought of 2011-15
How did Ventura county get here ahead of other areas? Said John Grether, whose farm grows citrus fruit and avocados, many new agencies are “still having their first meeting. We had our first meeting 30 years ago.” The fraught statewide conditions that led to passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 afflicted Ventura decades earlier.
Its coastal basins were so over-pumped by the 1930s that ocean water began to seep through the underground ramparts holding it back. (The loss of groundwater diminished the subsurface pressure keeping salt water out.) Persistent saline intrusion eventually made the state step in. The Fox Canyon agency was born.
Charles O’Rear/Environmental Protection Agency via National Archives
In the late 1980s, it called for a 25 percent cut in pumping over 20 years, ending in 2010. “We couldn’t tell you you couldn’t pump,” said Jeff Pratt, the public works director for Ventura County, who is Fox Canyon’s executive officer. “We could just tell you that if you pump more than a certain amount, it’s going to cost you a lot of money.” “The fines were real and they were huge,” said one farmer. The 2014 statewide law kept Fox Canyon responsible for the groundwater in its basins. It now has a new stick and carrot. The stick: If it fails to keep the basins from deteriorating in the six specific ways, the Department of Water Resources can take over. State takeover is a potent threat. As for the carrot, Fox Canyon, now a groundwater sustainability agency, can collect a revenue and spend it on supply- side improvements. That, Mr. Pratt said, “is huge.”
Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American WestFox Canyon works in tandem with United. In 2005, a state report said, “groundwater management and planning functions overlap” between Fox Canyon and United. Fox Canyon handles “extractions and policy,” and United “planning and implementation.”
United uses basins under the Santa Clara River, plus portions of three others, to send water to municipal and agricultural pumpers. It invests the fees in improving water-supply infrastructure, like diverting part of the Santa Clara River, the better to recharge basins. In a 2016 report, United calculated an average annual overdraft of 56,200 acre-feet for the previous 10 years, and the estimated overdraft for 2016 was 86,000 acre-feet.
For New Agencies, Who Gets a Seat at the Table?
The first task of the new groundwater agencies was to form governing boards. Along the Santa Clara River, those boards include United, but Mr. Morgan said, “There’s a very strong feeling that those who pump and are going to foot the bill should have a strong voice. … That makes sense, but you need a strong policy focus.” County and city government representatives, farmers, and, often, an environmental representative are on each board.
A key element of the new agencies’ deliberations is technical expertise. As Mr. Morgan said, “we need to have a technically defensible way of saying, ‘How big is the pie?’” The answers to that and the question of allocation will guide crop decisions. “Different crops have different needs,” said Lynn Gray Jensen, who speaks for farmers as the executive director of Ventura’s Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. Produce markets are fickle, she said. “Right now this crop is hot. The next day some other crop may be hot.”
Mr. Grether said growers, who have absorbed decades of cutbacks, fret about unfair allocations. Some don’t know if they can keep going with more cuts. Planting decisions are made annually, so five-year hydrology reviews are out of sync with agriculture’s economic rhythm. Good science means “people will know more and make better decisions,” said Mr. Grether — but farmers can’t wait for perfection.
Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West
How Much Pumping is Too Much? The Challenge of Defining “Sustainable Yield”
The chief task facing new boards is scientific — figuring out how much water can be pumped without causing “significant and unreasonable” consequences, like lowering water levels or water quality, or letting seawater intrude. The legal term is “sustainable yield.”
Lynn Jensen thinks the county and Fox Canyon are moving too fast. “They’re trying to shove this agenda through. They say, ‘It’s not going to be perfect.’ That’s fine if it’s not your water and your land.”
For Kimball R. Loeb, Ventura County’s groundwater manager, knowing the exact size of the pie is not necessary in the short run. Instead, he will accept a range of estimates, a “confidence band.” Sustainable yield, he said, “will be between the high number and the low number.” In the short term, he added, “we’re going to base pumping reductions on the high-end number.” The underlying science will be refined continually.
All steps of creating sustainability plans are being done simultaneously. “We’re continuing to fly the plane as we build it,” he said. Geologists and engineers in an advisory group are using their individual scientific lenses to analyze the basins. Mr. Loeb “has to get all these experts and corral them and try to get them to play together,” Mr. Pratt said.
A Key to Meeting Milestones: Keeping Disputes Out of the Courts
If pumpers object to their allocations, they may sue, starting an expensive and time-consuming legal process called adjudication. It ensures that courts make allocation decisions. Farmers who opt for this are gambling judges will give them a better deal than regulators. Will anyone take the gamble? “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Jurgen Gramckow, a sod farmer.
“Here’s the dilemma,” he added. “We have all these technical questions to answer in terms of what’s the safe yield of each basin, how do the basins interact, that sort of thing…. Say we solve that. Then the question is: ‘What’s your share? How much are you going to get?’ That’s going to be much less than you’ve been getting. How do we spread the pain?”
As for the long-term future, Mr. Grether is cautiously optimistic. “There’s going to be creative thinking” about enhancing supply, he said. The law sets a 20-year path to sustainability. The cuts needed “are big changes, if you only look at the endpoint. If you look at the year-to-year change, it’s not that big.”
How things play out in Ventura and around the state will show how collaborative government can work — or not. Esther Conrad, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University’s Water in the West program*, looks at the issue with an academic eye: “An experiment in common-pool resource governance is under way.”
* Water in the West is a joint program of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the Ojai groundwater basin as being under adjudication. The new groundwater sustainability agency there was created by the state legislature and the basin is not subject to adjudication. We regret the error.
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Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.
Nina Danza Ventura
Tell the federally endangered steelhead trout, who are on the brink of extinction in the Santa Clara River due to surface water diversion and groundwater extraction, that the sustainability plan is being developed too slow. Caltrout, and a huge consortium of stakeholders locally and nationally, have recognized this river as THE LAST MOSTLY intact riparian ecosystem left in the southern half of California. Where is the environment’s piece of the water pie??
Larry Yee Ojai, Calif.
On one of your VC basin maps you have the Ojai Basin as adjudicated. I don’t think that’s correct. Could you pls double check.
Staff and Contributors
Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.
‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.
Bruce E. Cain