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Commentary: Farm regions deserve a voice on protecting aquifers

Issue Date: April 27, 2022
By Danny Merkley
Danny Merkley
A California Department of Water Resources geologist measures groundwater levels on farmland in Yolo County. Proposed legislation could undermine local participation in aquifer management.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

California's farmers and ranchers are under enormous stress entering a third year of unrelenting drought.

Family farms and ranches have seen their access to surface water severely curtailed. There isn't enough water for irrigation. Water rights holders are denied diversions while state officials instead work to increase unimpaired river flows.

We are in the slow implementation of the Water Storage Improvement Program authorized by 2014's Proposition 1, the voter-approved initiative that has yet to deliver the promised infrastructure to boost our water supply.

Meanwhile, state policies and regulations are now effectively closing our water checking accounts—by denying use of surface water—and restricting access to our water savings accounts—by imposing burdens on the pumping of groundwater.

Adding to the stress, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a drought executive order on March 28. It requires local groundwater well-permitting agencies to consult with their Groundwater Sustainability Agency before issuing permits in high- or medium-priority groundwater basins.

According to conversations I have had with Department of Water Resources staff and a two-page fact sheet by DWR, local agencies retain their permitting authority. However, the order requires them to receive written verification from their GSA that any new well is consistent with an adopted Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

Those plans, or GSPs, are in effect once adopted by the regional Groundwater Sustainability Agency and submitted to water resources officials. Then the plans must be adjusted to any deficiencies identified by the DWR.

However, extensive studies and analysis unduly delaying the permitting process are unnecessary. Before a well permit is issued by a local well-permitting agency, it must determine that a new well is unlikely to interfere with existing wells nearby or cause ground subsidence that would adversely impact nearby infrastructure. In most cases, this doesn't trigger a California Environmental Quality Act review.

Beyond agriculture, the governor's executive order calls on local urban water suppliers to conserve water across all sectors. It directs the State Water Resources Control Board to consider a ban on watering decorative grass at businesses and institutions and to ensure that vulnerable communities have drinking water. The order also streamlines groundwater recharge permitting when we have heavy rain events.

DWR officials are available to help local agencies navigate the well-permitting requirements in the order. For more information or questions, contact DWR's Sustainable Groundwater Management Office at: SGMPS@water.ca.gov.

The governor's drought executive order, which may be viewed at gov.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/ March-2022-Drought-EO.pdf, is active only while an emergency declaration is in effect. A drought emergency declaration was extended for the fourth time on March 28.

Meanwhile, more threats may loom for agriculture from groundwater management legislation now under consideration. The California Farm Bureau strongly opposes the recently introduced Assembly Bill 2201 by Assembly member Steve Bennett, D-Ventura.

The bill would prohibit a groundwater well without a valid permit issued by a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. It would require GSAs to develop permit processes by June 30, 2023 and prohibit issuing permits for new or expanded groundwater wells in probationary basins, unless the State Water Board determines that all or part of the basin is adequately managed.

AB 2201 would also authorize a GSA to adopt an ordinance establishing a process for issuing a permit in basins that are NOT critically overdrafted. The bill would also authorize GSAs to impose fees for groundwater well permits.

The measure threatens one of the key elements agreed upon in the development of SGMA: "locally driven." Right now, local GSAs simply do not have the staff or resources to accomplish what this measure pushes on them.

The governor's drought executive order is a step to address necessary communication between local permitting agencies and local GSAs, which are charged with bringing groundwater basins into balance.

No doubt, fixes related to the executive order will need to be identified over time. Meanwhile, the steps called for in AB 2201 are premature and misguided. They represent a top-down management approach that is heavy-handed and unnecessary.

I am a fourth-generation Sacramento Valley farmer, and I have never seen a more resilient, adaptive group of men and women than the family farmers and ranchers who have built California's critical—and essential—agricultural economy.

These may be difficult times and may even seem impossible. But, as long as people in California and beyond need to be fed, I believe we will get through this.

Just as our farmers and ranchers never shrink from their responsibilities to put food on America's tables, the California Farm Bureau is actively fighting for you. We are working on solutions to keep water flowing to produce the most healthful food and farm products in the world, and we won't relent in our efforts.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau. He may be reached at dmerkley@cfbf.com.)

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




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