During the last big drought in 2014, the California Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). This historic law mandated that all groundwater in California come under the jurisdiction of the government (California was the last western state to adopt regulations for the pumping of groundwater).
The purpose of the law is basically to eliminate overdraft, that is, the pumping of more water out of the ground than the amount that is recharged, either naturally or intentionally. The law wisely places the primary responsibility for regulating groundwater in the hands of local government entities, with the state reserving authority to step in if the locals fail to do the job. It also recognized that it would take a long time to bring the groundwater resources of California into sustainable balance. The target deadline for sustainability is the year 2040, however steady progress must be demonstrated in the meantime.
A lot has been accomplished in the last six years. During that time, all of California’s groundwater was covered by hundreds of newly formed Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). All the subbasins designated as “critically overdrafted” by the state submitted legally required Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) by the January 31, 2020 deadline. The GSAs are now implementing those plans, and the impact of those plans on local farmers is directly proportional to the amount of surface water available to that local area. As areas formed GSAs, there was a tendency by water districts with surface water rights to form a GSA that covered just their jurisdiction, leaving undistricted land to fend for itself. In some areas – Madera County being a prime example – the land not in surface water districts ended up being bunched together in a GSA with the county government responsible for providing SGMA coverage.
The Madera County GSA encompasses about 233,000 acres in three subbasins. It has 185,000 acres in the Madera Subbasin of which 85,000 acres are irrigated. It has 45,000 acres in the Chowchilla Subbasin of which 38,000 are irrigated and there are 3,000 acres in the Delta Mendota Subbasin of which 2,100 are irrigated. The Madera County GSA has been granted 90,000 acre-feet of annual “sustainable yield” in the Madera Subbasin and 22,500 acre-feet of annual sustainable yield in the Chowchilla Subbasin. In addition, the GSP grants access to “transition water” in each subbasin. Transition water is overdraft that is allowed as the GSA moves to a sustainable condition by 2040. It is a declining amount of water that, for a fee, will be available to farmers to cushion the curtailing of groundwater pumping.
The issue the Madera County Board of Supervisors – acting as the governing board of the Madera County GSA – had to deal with this week is how to allocate the sustainable yield and the transition water to the acres in the GSA. Would they allocate it to every acre or just to the irrigated acres? In the Madera Subbasin portion of the GSA, there are about 100,000 acres of unirrigated land in addition to the 85,000 acres of irrigated land. Allocating groundwater to the unirrigated lands would greatly reduce the amount of water available to the irrigated lands and would necessitate the establishment of a mechanism to enable that allocated water to be transferred to the irrigated acres that need it.
Representatives of the unirrigated lands made their case to the Board that fairness dictated that everyone should get a share of the water allocation. Others made the case that the purpose of the transition water is to soften the economic impact irrigated agriculture faces in ramping down groundwater usage to sustainable levels. It was a very tough political call for the Supervisors. A motion was made to allocate the sustainable yield and the transition water to irrigated acres only, with some instructions to county staff to work with the dairy industry in providing some timing flexibility to the ramp down schedule. This was noted due to the reality that dairies operate under Nutrient Management Plans tied to specific farmable acres and a reduction of those acres will cause permit compliance issues with the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board.
The motion passed unanimously. It was a very hard decision for the Board to make – politicians do not like votes that will displease some of their constituents. SGMA forces local officials to either make these decisions or the state will come in and take over. Now that the decision has been made to allocate pumping amounts to irrigated farming, making a water supply budget becomes possible and creating the opportunity to receive groundwater credits for supplemental recharge projects also becomes possible.
SGMA is a game changer in the Central Valley. Very dry years add pressure and stress to an already difficult situation. A lot has changed since the last drought. We have a plan and communities are working to implement their plans. It requires more infrastructure to capture more water when we have wet years and a steady calm when the inevitable dry period comes our way. Droughts are to be expected in California. We must do better in the wet times to get us through the dry times. That is the message we need our leaders to understand. This week, it was the Madera County GSA’s turn to make a courageous and difficult decision. They met the moment.
Geoff Vanden Heuvel
Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs