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LOIS HENRY: Local districts pull out of Kern Groundwater Authority

swid-recharge-scaled

Pipes lie next to a canal in preparation for construction of a large water recharge project in Kern County in this 2020 photo.

Fractures have appeared within Kern County’s largest groundwater agency as pressure mounts for it to show the state how it plans to address the region’s massive groundwater deficit.

Four water entities recently notified the Kern Groundwater Authority they were pulling out of the 16-member group to write their own groundwater sustainability plan. That will add a sixth plan covering the Kern subbasin, which extends across the San Joaquin Valley portion of the county.

This comes as members of the authority, and other groundwater sustainability agencies in the subbasin, are working to respond to the Department of Water Resources (DWR), which found all groundwater plans in Kern County incomplete in January.

Those responses are due to the state by July 27.

That made the timing a bit awkward when the authority was notified on April 21 that four of its members were bailing out.

The Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District, Tejon-Castac Water District and Arvin Community Services District, collectively, formed the South of Kern River Districts Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

They intend to have their own, separate groundwater management plan to the state by July 21, said Jeevan Muhar, general manager of Arvin-Edison.

“We’ll be ready,” he said.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) mandates water agencies bring overdrafted aquifers into balance by 2040. That, generally, means more water shouldn’t be pumped out than goes back in.

The entire San Joaquin Valley is considered critically overdrafted. In Kern, the aquifer is being over pumped by a a whopping 320,000 acre feet a year – likely more during drought.

The state also requires that all plans covering a subbasin be coordinated, something that’s proven difficult for Kern..

“The foundational deficiency for the Kern subbasin was a lack of utilizing the same data and methodology across the existing five groundwater sustainability plans,” said Paul Gosselin, Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management for DWR. “So, adding a sixth plan may increase the complexity of that.”

In its evaluation that found Kern’s plans incomplete, DWR specifically called out what’s known as “minimum thresholds,” or the lowest allowable groundwater levels set by groundwater agencies, and asked for a better explanation for how those levels were set and potential impacts on other water users.

One of the districts mentioned in DWR’s evaluation was the Semitropic Water Storage District in northwestern Kern County.

Semitropic set its minimum thresholds an average 189 feet below the current water table, meaning its farmers could, theoretically, pump the aquifer down that much more before the district would take action.

In some cases Semitropic’s minimum thresholds are hundreds of feet lower than those of its neighbors making it difficult to see how those districts would be able to maintain their water levels.

Semitropic’s General Manager Jason Gianquinto told SJV Water in a previous story that the district is managing groundwater on a “glide path,” which includes numerous programs to keep the district from hitting those lowest levels.

It remains to be seen if that approach is acceptable to DWR.

Gosselin said his staff would specifically evaluate the resubmitted plans to make sure they “speak to the entire basin in a clear, concise way not just for us, but all the groundwater users.”

“If there are still deficiencies, even one in a single plan, that will mean the whole basin is deemed inadequate,” Gosselin said.

That would put the basin into “probationary” status and open the door for action from the State Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of SGMA.

Enforcement could include pumping limits set by the state, fines and hefty fees attached to every acre foot pumped.

“We, obviously, recognize the potential for this basin to be put into probation,” Arvin-Edison’s Muhar said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t go that direction.”

If so, however, some are banking on Water Code Section 10735.2(e), which states “The board shall exclude from probationary status any portion of a basin for which a groundwater sustainability agency demonstrates compliance with the sustainability goal.”

In water circles, it’s known as the “good guy clause,” meaning groundwater agencies working toward sustainability per all the requirements of SGMA might not be put on probation with the rest of a subbasin.

“That might be an opportunity for the South of the Kern River districts if the basin goes to the board,” Muhar acknowledged and added: “That’s not why we did it (formed a separate agency). And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure the basin doesn’t go into probation.”

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.