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Water & the West

A simmering revolt against groundwater cutbacks in California

New agencies find making sustainability plans is hard, but easier than persuading growers to accept them.

Estimating what lies beneath A quad ATV tows a electrical resistivity scanner over a field in the Yolo Bypass in November 2019. Methods like these are helping to assess the hydrogeology of critical groundwater basins in California. Jonathan Wong/California Department of Water Resources

By Felicity Barringer

In 2014, California legislators, focused on groundwater’s accelerating decline during a prolonged drought, passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Its imperatives: keeping groundwater levels sustainable by 2040 and keeping control of groundwater in local hands. Both goals are now in limbo.

As the state endures yet another prolonged drought and state water managers have balked at approving plans covering the basins at greatest risk – the vast majority in the San Joaquin Valley – more growers in a few of the new local groundwater agencies are in revolt at the new rules that will curtail access to the water they once took for granted.  

The law requires these new agencies to develop a plan to keep their groundwater basin levels sustainable by 2040 and avoid negative outcomes like dry domestic wells

The law requires these new agencies to develop a plan to keep their groundwater basin levels sustainable by 2040 and avoid negative outcomes like dry domestic wells. Now the DWR has called for improvements in the plans of 11 critically overdrafted San Joaquin Valley basins. Local agencies have sent revised plans back to the state and await  DWR’s determination, due this winter. 

Why were the plans rejected? In careful bureaucratic language, DWR made it clear that, whatever the plans’ merits, agencies failed to meet two key goals: First, when defining sustainable criteria and minimum groundwater thresholds, they didn’t consider enough the key public and private groundwater uses like public supply wells and domestic wells. Wells dried out in record numbers this summer. Second, there was little information about what continuing subsidence (the term for land above declining aquifers deforming downward) would do to important infrastructure like roads and canals if pumping exceeded historic lows.

The discussions between the state and local agencies over sustainability plans are complex, but the bottom lines are: what controls are imposed and by whom. Who takes responsibility for ensuring groundwater will be there for future generations?  Who sets pumping limits to protect domestic wells and local streams? Whose decisions on enforcing the new limits will force growers to leave land fallow and maybe go out of business, crippling rural economies?

Will it be the new local groundwater management agencies, or the state’s Water Resources Control Board, or perhaps a judge?

“We are definitely at a crossroads,” said David Orth, a former general manager of the Kings River Conservation District who is now a Tennessee-based consultant working with several Central Valley growers, lenders, and an environmental group. Orth, who worked with legislators as they shaped the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, added, “In 2013 and 2014 I believed – I still believe – that it can work. It has to work. Local agencies and the constituencies they serve can make it work.” 

Then he sighed. “On the other hand,” he added, “I am also starting to accept that tensions and conflicts [in some areas] are going to lead to litigation. No one wins in that case.”

The creation of groundwater plans had no precedent

Before 2017, when the brand-new groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) began preparing basin sustainability plans – a first for all involved – their aim was state approval, which is contingent on the plan’s ability to avoid six specific negative consequences. Among them were chronic declines in groundwater level, which could harm shallow domestic wells, and land subsidence. Other consequences to be avoided include degraded water quality, loss of storage capacity, harm to interconnected surface waters and seawater intrusion. Consideration of interconnected surface waters and groundwater-dependent ecosystems was also required.

Given the multiple parameters, it’s not surprising that the process took more than two years and required hundreds of hours of consultant time and dozens of public meetings for all the new San Joaquin Valley GSAs. For the agencies, it wasn’t just groundwater’s future at issue, it was their own, as the guardians of their aquifers and of the economic viability of their areas. 

For the agencies, it wasn’t just groundwater’s future at issue, it was their own, as the guardians of their aquifers and the economic viability of their areas. 

Over the past three years, the new GSAs calculated how much groundwater they have, how fast it’s being pumped, and how to make it last. They devised new engineering projects to support and replenish their aquifers; all had a cost. Hydrologists, geologists, engineering consultants – not to mention measuring equipment and management – are expensive. GSAs had to figure out how to pay for things. The state provided tens of millions of dollars in grants – at least $29 million to two sub-basins in Madera County in the northern San Joaquin, and, as of May, about $7.6 million for each critically overdrafted basin.

All that work culminated in decisions by the GSAs  to set minimum groundwater levels and to decide whether to set fees on their growers. These became the basis for all the other decisions, like allocating the reductions in available groundwater among local farmers, whose dependence on groundwater increased as severe drought costs them much of their usual surface water. 

To enforce the limits on pumping – the bureaucratic term is “demand management” – many agencies felt penalties were needed to bring those who pumped more than their share back into line.

These allotments and penalties have hit raw nerves among those farming in the stressed basins, including those in Kern County in the southern San Joaquin Valley and Madera County further north. Acting as a GSA in the three sub-basins that are part of the overall Madera groundwater basin, Madera County supervisors had allocated pumping limits and established a penalty of $100 per acre-foot for farmers who over-pump. The GSA also required them to pay as much as $246 an acre to support the GSA’s work.

A pistachio farm in Chowchilla seen in November 2018. USDA via Flickr

Blowback after decisions to limit groundwater use

Discontent grew as the new fees and fines were set. Madera County’s groundwater basin contains three sub-basins, each with its own GSA. A 25-year-old state rule, called Proposition 218, allows landholders to vote on such fees. Madera County’s fees were set to support the agency’s efforts to drill new wells for domestic users, purchase water supplies and help efforts to recharge water. Landowners in two GSAs, representing the Madera and Delta-Mendota sub-basins, voted to accept their fees. 

Then the revolt began: landowners in the Chowchilla subbasin rejected their $203 fee in a vote that was required under a 25-year-old state law called Proposition 218.

It continued with the formation last summer of the Valley Groundwater Coalition, a group of farmers opposed to the new controls. The group, led by longtime Madera farmer Ralph Pistoresi, challenged the county’s right to impose the new fees. In the first week of December, a judge enjoined the county from collecting the money through property tax bills. A final decision on the fate of the fees is pending.

After Madera County supervisors set the fees last summer, the next step was to set penalties for overdrafting. The county board considered a proposal to fine users $500 an acre-foot for pumping more than their allotted amount.  But, after three hours of debate at a September 26 meeting, it voted 4-1 to set a $100 initial penalty, which would rise by $100 more each year until it reached $500.

Jay Mahil, who represents the fourth generation of his family to work the soil, warned the board what the cutbacks and fines could do to the local economy. As reported by the ABC affiliate, KFSN, Mahil said, “you will truly see the trickle-down effect happen. If I have to fallow ground, lay off employees, that means it’s much less business done in town.” 

If local agencies fail to get their groundwater use in line, eventually the state takes over management.

Bobby Macaulay, who was running for a Madera supervisor’s seat, told angry constituents at the same meeting that defying the state board, as some urged, could leave local government with no control. If local agencies fail to get their groundwater use in line, eventually the state takes over management. As quoted in the San Joaquin Valley Sun, Macaulay said, “The board took action to prevent further state influence over local policy. I applaud their efforts to work toward solutions that ensure we have more control over our own future.” He narrowly won the election.

In May, the Department of Water Resources awarded $150 million in grant funds to 20 Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. Pictured at an event in Sacramento are Rhett Anderson of Visalia, Karla Nemeth and Paul Gosselin of the California Department of Water Resources and Aaron Fukuda, right, general manager of the Mid Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency. The money was awarded through DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Grant Program, which aims to support critically overdrafted groundwater basins. Andrew Innerarity/California Department of Water Resources

It didn’t help that the adoption of allotments and penalties coincided with a major drought.  Aqueducts bringing water from Northern California and the Sierra were drying out;: California’s water project cut back deliveries of surface water to five percent or less this year; federal cutbacks were also severe. As Christina Beckstead, the executive director of the Madera County farm bureau, told the National Nut Grower newsletter, the angry farmers’ message was “‘Look, stop chastising us for pumping groundwater when you cut off our surface water supplies.”

Embed from Getty Images

A protest sign concerning water rights stood beside drought-affected farmland in the central valley town of Lemoore, California in September 2018.   MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

The next sign of revolt came in November, as a group of Madera county farmers went to Sacramento to protest their loss of water. Along with them was David Rogers, a supervisor who had voted against the new penalty.

These Madera farmers are not alone. As SJV Water reported, the Kings River East GSA, in eastern Fresno and northern Tulare Counties, whose original plan was deemed incomplete by the state in part because of a failure to protect domestic wells, declared in a June letter that it was “unreasonable” to make agriculture pumpers immediately responsible for avoiding the dry wells. The law requiring groundwater sustainability – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – set the deadline for sustainability in 2040. 

But thanks to the state’s growing insistence on protecting poor communities’ wells, “I think the Department of Water Resources raised the bar as to what needs to be done to protect domestic wells,” said Orth, the former General Manager of Kings River. But the GSA’s stand, he added, “is a losing argument politically.”

Whether it is the Kings River East’s defiance or the Madera protests and lawsuit or the angry meetings elsewhere, the  new plans’ cutbacks and fines lit a match. “The blowback is a function of two things,” Orth said. “One is people being disinterested in the groundwater issue over the years, thinking ‘They can’t possibly do this to me.’ And now, two. the drought is impacting them more directly than they’d anticipated.”

In Point Reyes Station in June, the North Marin Water District drilled a water well as part of a state program to mitigate water supply problems in small communities. Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

The need to find a villain

While the current drought has made the reality of water loss more palpable, it’s been clear for at least a decade that groundwater was over pumped, and that SGMA’s passage would eventually result in farmland taken out of production. The Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco estimates that the result of compliance with SGMA is likely to mean the loss of half a million to a million acres of irrigated farmland by 2040. 

The designers of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act were determined to localize decision-making, and hundreds of hours were devoted to local solutions by people in groundwater agencies, water districts, consultant firms, farm bureaus not to mention advocates for poor communities and the natural environment. But the fact the solutions were local didn’t make them more palatable.   

For two years, people like Aaron Fukuda, the general manager of both the Tulare Irrigation District and the Mid-Kaweah GSA, have devised sustainability plans and tried to get the farmers who pay the price – in lost water, money, or both – accept the need for cutbacks. 

“What we’re finding out is that you have to be committed to the process, committed to everybody involved, and do it very thoughtfully. That’s why I don’t sleep any more.”

“What we’re finding out is that you have to be committed to the process, committed to everybody involved, and do it very thoughtfully. That’s why I don’t sleep any more,” Fukuda said. “It is probably something I never prepared for. You take a sociology class in college, and don’t realize that [someday] you’ll be part of a regulatory situation that is all about sociology.”

Farmers in districts that depend solely on groundwater – widely called “white areas” – “think they have a right” to whatever groundwater they need, Fukuda said. He added, “I’ve had a lot of discussions with white area guys. They call me up, yell at me about how bad it is. Once they get it out of their system, after they rant for an hour and 45 minutes, they say, ‘Oh. I see.’”

Some growers – those belonging to irrigation districts – have long been part of a system of water management. They tend to blame declining groundwater levels on white-area farmers out of the district, who have never been part of an organized water management system and whose orchards and vineyards get water only from the ground.

Farmers in the white areas have their own villains. Bill Diedrich of Firebaugh, who has 150 acres of almond orchards in a white area in  Madera County along with at least 1,350 acres of almonds and tomatoes in a local irrigation district, believes the problem is declining surface water deliveries.  “Obviously, this law [SGMA] was needed.… But … groundwater usage is a function of surface water availability. The two cannot be separated,” he said.

The Pit River Bridge and a section of shoreline and portions of the marina at Bridge Bay on Shasta Lake in October, when the reservoir was at 32% of total capacity. Andrew Innerarity/California Department of Water Resources

He added, “California has not kept pace with infrastructure projects to garner enough surface water to mitigate the groundwater catastrophe that we’re in the middle of … The linchpin of our survival and groundwater sustainability is more surface storage…”

“There’s just rampant scapegoating,” said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of water resources in Madera County. “Everyone wants to blame someone else. So the water and irrigation districts, who also have a share of overdrafts, want to blame the white area. The white area wants to blame the county and the state. There’s enough responsibility on overdraft to go around.”

Left: Aaron Cuthbertson and Kimberly Bowman, engineering geologists with the California Department of Water Resources, measure groundwater levels at designated monitoring wells in Yolo County in March 2020. Right: Cuthbertson at a monitoring wellhead. Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources
Top: Aaron Cuthbertson and Kimberly Bowman, engineering geologists with the California Department of Water Resources, measure groundwater levels at designated monitoring wells in Yolo County in March 2020. Bottom: Cuthbertson at a monitoring wellhead. Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

New ways to measure groundwater withdrawals

Trust in the new agencies will be needed as the impact of their decisions becomes clear. Of all steps the new agencies had to take, the most crucial was reaching out to growers to help them understand what was happening and why.

Anagnoson said, “A lot of us have found that we have to do this – we jokingly refer to ‘one farmer at a time’.  They rail against increased regulation and inflation and all the challenges they face and they typically do get to a place of some understanding.” She added that some water managers compared farmers’ feelings about losing groundwater to the stages of grief after losing a loved one. She echoes another water manager who called it “stages of SGMA.”

Some water managers compared farmers’ feelings about losing groundwater to the stages of grief after losing a loved one.

As Kole Upton, a farmer who serves on Merced County’s GSA board, said, “The history of SGMA is that we’ve needed it for a long time. Some farmers like to live in la-la land, saying ‘We’ve got rights, we can do what we want to do.’ But now there are limits on what the government will allow you to do. We’ve been overdrafting the valley for decades.”  

Collectively, NOAA estimates say that 140 cubic kilometers of groundwater have been pumped out of the Central Valley in the past century. In recent years, the biggest local impact has been to dry out hundreds of domestic wells

This year, through November, the state reports 1,017 wells in the Valley have gone dry.

But Upton fears the economic impact of new restrictions. A key question, he said, is “whether you’re going to have enough water to maintain the economy we’ve had in the area.”

“I think part of [the resistance] is that a lot of these folks are multi-generational farm families,” said Eric Garner, a Los Angeles lawyer and veteran of fights over groundwater. “They can’t conceive of not doing it…. To not have the same amount of water is a hard thing to grasp.”  

Sustainability metrics must be accurate and trusted

Trusting the groundwater officials is important. Trusting the data underlying their decisions, their metrics for groundwater levels and groundwater use, is crucial. 

“When we negotiated SGMA in 2014, some people in the room wanted every agricultural well in California metered and reported to a public database,” said David Orth. “We argued that meters are expensive and can become very inaccurate very quickly.” he suggested, he said, “Given the emerging technologies, let the GSAs figure this out.”

Many GSAs have turned to remote satellite-based systems that measure the amount of water evaporated from a given piece of land, known as evapotranspiration. Anagnoson said that a committee of Madera County growers recommended one such system, Irriwatch. Land IQ is a similar system used by at least two dozen agencies.

Estimating what lies beneath A quad ATV tows a electrical resistivity scanner over a field in the Yolo Bypass in November 2019. Methods like these are helping to assess the hydrogeology of critical groundwater basins in California. Jonathan Wong/California Department of Water Resources

Irriwatch uses remote sensing that measures the temperature of the crops, then put the data through an algorithm to compute evapotranspiration. Supporters of this system argue that evapotranspiration, or the amount of water lost to the atmosphere when used by an irrigated crop, is a better measurement than just metering amounts pumped. 

The system specifically measures evapotranspiration of applied water (ETAW) – or how much of the water pumped goes into the atmosphere. As Irriwatch’s explanatory pamphlet says, “ETAW is a measurement of consumptive use, or the amount of water vaporized into the atmosphere.” The difference between this measure and simple metering, it says, “is that not all water applied is consumed by the crop; some water percolates below the root zone….” 

If a measurement system and its metrics lose growers’ trust, hostility to the rules based on those metrics is more likely.

A Madera grower, Jack Rice, told the county board that local farmers had lost confidence in Irriwatch’s system, the publication Waterwrights reported. At the board’s September 26 meeting, Madera’s Supervisor David Rogers, the lone vote against the $100 penalty, called Irriwatch’s data “junk.” SJV Water reported.

But across the valley, Orth reports, there is a widespread preference for metrics based on evapotranspiration rather than metering. Still, the Madera experience shows that if a measurement system and its metrics lose growers’ trust, hostility to the rules based on those metrics is more likely.

The looming threats of state takeover or adjudication

Getting both the state water board and the local growers to accept sustainability plans is, as Fukuda said, a recipe for managers losing sleep. And Anagnoson said, “SGMA assumed people were willing to work together a lot more easily than they do.”

But it’s clear the state has no appetite to take over, if the law’s goals can be accomplished by local agencies. Paul Gosselin, the Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management at the Department of Water Resources, said in an interview last spring, “the entirety of the goal is to get the plans back to the local agency for implementation – nobody has any desire to get the state involved for any long periods.”

He added that local GSAs aren’t waiting for state approval before putting new withdrawal limits into effect.  “A lot of agencies, even with incomplete status, have been taking some very significant steps, – including limiting how much groundwater extraction [can occur].”

 “A lot of agencies, even with incomplete status, have been taking some very significant steps, – including limiting how much groundwater extraction [can occur].”

“If the state board comes in and manages, it’s a failure of SGMA’s primary mandate,” Orth said. “The locals just didn’t get it right.” But he added, “I also am starting to accept that tensions and conflicts are going to lead to litigation and extended adjudicatory process.”

Why would it be better to let a judge decide? As Eric Garner sees it, “If you look at the risk-reward for someone that gets an allocation they don’t like,” he added, “the cost of an allocation they don’t like is potentially more than a lawsuit….If they change their behavior and their neighbor doesn’t, the cost to the people who change their behavior is unacceptably high. It’s not hopeless. It’s just a very difficult issue.”  

“I think that we are going to see some of the more progressive subbasins prove that they are capable of managing their groundwater,” Orth said. “It will probably fall short in other places where people can’t get their arms around [what needs to be done].”

“I’m less optimistic about how many [basins’ plans] will be harmoniously resolved,” Garner said. What will this outcome mean for the future of California groundwater? “One way or another these basins are going to get managed.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

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