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Groundwater: Local agencies await finalized basin priorities

Issue Date: October 17, 2018
By Christine Souza

As local agencies tackle the task of writing groundwater sustainability plans for basins around California, two ongoing processes will affect both the number and the scope of those plans.

Next month, the state Department of Water Resources plans to finalize its rankings of basins and sub-basins that will need to produce groundwater management plans by early 2022. Next spring, DWR plans to finalize boundaries for 43 basins where local agencies requested changes before writing their plans.

Meanwhile, agencies overseeing critically overdrafted basins must have their sustainability plans finished in about 15 months—by Jan. 31, 2020.

It's all part of implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which launched a multi-year process for bringing California groundwater basins into sustainability.

"Local communities are really making very good progress in implementing SGMA, but as they get further into the details, it is increasingly evident that some areas are grappling with significant challenges that will be difficult to resolve," California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Jack Rice said. "And for everyone, uncertainty about the cost of the plan and what exactly will be required remains an issue."

For some basins, the uncertainty involves potential changes in both basin priorities and boundaries.

One constant has been the focus on the 21 basins and sub-basins listed as critically overdrafted. Those face the earliest deadlines for completion and implementation of groundwater sustainability plans, or GSPs.

But DWR may reduce the number of high- and medium-priority basins, for which GSPs must be finished by Jan. 31, 2022. The state had earlier classified 127 basins as medium or high priority, and may reduce that number to 109 next month. But although the net number of basins declined, some basins that had been classified as low priority have been reclassified as medium or high—meaning they will require GSPs.

Agencies overseeing many of the basins reclassified as a higher priority raised concerns with the accuracy of the data used to determine the reprioritization.

Sonoma County, which initially had three medium- or high-priority basins, now may have six under the draft reprioritization.

Sonoma County farmer Tito Sasaki, who works on two of the county's three original groundwater sustainability agencies, said having to manage an additional three basins would be difficult and costly.

"We have sent in a letter asking for reconsideration (of the three new basins)," said Sasaki, who serves on the CFBF and Sonoma County Farm Bureau water committees. "We contend that some of the data they used in changing the classification were outdated or not quite right. We haven't really started acting on these three new proposals until it becomes final, because we don't know if it is going to stay as originally proposed, modified or withdrawn."

Development of a GSP for each of the three initial basins was estimated to cost $1 million per year, Sasaki said, with some relief provided by a $3 million grant from the state to help with the initial cost of plan development.

"Although we think we are going on schedule and doing our best, I can expect lots of stumbling blocks here and there along the way," he said.

Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, a dairy producer and farmer in Kerman, sits on two groundwater sustainability agencies, including the McMullin Area GSA, a basin identified as critically overdrafted.

"We're trying to work together to bring in stormwater to help the area out," Pacheco said, adding that the two agencies are working on individual plans, but using the same model for each.

"There's definitely been some challenges along the way and as these plans take shape, there will be more hurdles to overcome in the future, but everyone has the common goal to solve our own problem and keep local control," he said.

In developing plans, he said, each GSA will differ, depending on the amount of surface water available.

"In areas that have less surface water, floodwater has become a hot commodity. Whereas before people didn't want floodwater, now everybody wants floodwater. It is just the dynamics of how things have changed," Pacheco said.

In Butte County, Paul Gosselin, director of the county Department of Water and Resource Conservation, said the sub-basins in the county are classified as either medium or high priority.

"We currently have four sub-basins, which all extend to some extent into adjoining counties," Gosselin said. "Some of the agencies have basin boundary modifications proposed that will bring those sub-basins down to three. Most of the boundary modifications are really going to improve the planning aspect of SGMA. We are moving ahead with the presumption that basin boundary modifications are going to go through."

Mark Nordberg, senior engineering geologist in the DWR Sustainable Groundwater Management Office, said there have been two rounds of draft basin boundary modifications, with 38 requests finalized in the first round and 43 additional requests pending in the second round.

Regarding plan development in Butte County, Gosselin said the county received a state grant and has begun work related to hydrology, water budgets, water demands, and analyzing scenarios under different planning cycles. The information, he said, "will be the foundation for discussion of sustainable criteria."

"It really will address inter-basin coordination and provide a solid technical foundation for the management action," Gosselin said. "We expect to have that done by the end of 2019. You have a number of different people with different perspectives, and facilitation services provided by DWR were very valuable. It really helped to have a neutral third party to talk with us and work through agreements."

In addition to facilitation support, Nordberg said DWR offers technical support for the development of GSPs, which can be in the form of written technical documents, field support or through SGMA staff at four regional offices.

"Water management situations and the complexity of the hydrogeology are different in all areas throughout the state, so the level of complexity of these plans will vary tremendously," Nordberg said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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