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LOIS HENRY: Four valley groundwater plans fail to meet state standards – for now

Four groundwater plans in the Central Valley — including those for Westlands Water District, Chowchilla Water District and the Merced and Eastern San Joaquin subbasins — don’t show how they will protect water quality, keep drinking water wells from going dry or stop already sinking land from sinking further, according to the Department of Water Resources.

In short, those plans earned “D’s” in DWR’s first round of assessments of Central Valley groundwater plans. DWR expects to issue assessments on the remaining groundwater plans, about 36 that cover the valley from Madera to Kern counties, within the first two weeks of December.

Groundwater agency managers weren’t given DWR’s assessments prior to their release Thursday morning so couldn’t answer questions about specific issues. Some plan managers said they only received calls from DWR alerting them to the coming assessments the day before.

DWR says it wants to see responses from the groundwater agencies that show clear actions to reduce harm to domestic well owners and reduce the impacts of subsidence.

“We’re not going to accept a plan to do a plan,” said Paul Gosselin, deputy director for the California Department of Water Resources, Sustainable Groundwater Management Office. “We’re looking for very concrete, measurable changes to address these deficiencies.”

The groundwater plans are the outcome of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, which mandates over pumped aquifers be brought into balance by 2040. Balance, in general, means more water shouldn’t be pumped out than goes back in.

In Eastern San Joaquin — which includes Stockton, Lodi, Manteca, Oakdale, Lathrop, and other communities across San Joaquin County — DWR requested more information and projects that would reduce chronic lowering of the groundwater table and more data that would accurately monitor subsidence.

In DWR’s letter on the Westside Subbasin, overseen by Westlands Water District, it stated the plan did not have adequate information when it comes to issues of subsidence, chronic lowering of groundwater levels and water quality. The issue of dropping groundwater levels, which have put domestic and community wells at risk throughout the San Joaquin Valley, was particularly lacking, according to the letter. The plan contained “little to no” specific information to support sustainable management of dropping groundwater levels, the letter read.

Westlands Water District was not immediately available to comment but a spokesperson did write via email that staff will continue to work with DWR to ensure the plan is in compliance with the state’s requirements.

The major issues DWR found in the Chowchilla Water District included how the groundwater agency will monitor and fix domestic drinking wells if groundwater levels fall too far, how the agency justified continued subsidence in a portion of is coverage area and why the agency didn’t find that groundwater pumping had any effect on area streams including the Chowchilla River, Ash Slough, Berenda Slough and San Joaquin River.

According to a 2020 report from the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, over 80% of domestic wells are expected to go dry under the current groundwater plans for the Merced and Chowchilla sub-basins.

The groundwater agencies in charge of these plans will have a quick turnaround to fix issues flagged by DWR before the agency issues its statutorily required evaluation in January 2022. If DWR still finds plans deficient in that evaluation, the groundwater agencies will have six months to bring them up to snuff.

Groundwater plans covering four other subbasins in Sacramento and Ventura counties were given a stamp of approval by DWR on Thursday. Those included the North and South Yuba groundwater plans as well as the Oxnard and Pleasant Valley plans.

DWR’s Gosselin noted that even those approved plans received some corrections and other requirements.

“We view this as the beginning of a process of continuous improvement,” he said. “We’re not going to approve plans and walk away and leave it be.”

Lois Henry is the CEO and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. She can be reached at lois.henry@sjvwater.org. The website is sjvwater.org.

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