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SGMA Subbasin Round Up

The implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is a very local endeavor. Of course, the State plays a role, but the actions and decisions about what the policies and rules are for each individual area are determined by local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) for their jurisdictions. Over 90% of California milk production occurs in the San Joaquin Valley and I try to keep up with all the SGMA developments in that area. What follows is an overview of SGMA progress starting in the south and moving northward.

Kern Subbasin encompasses over 1 million acres and has 20 individual GSAs. The Kern Subbasin is one of the six San Joaquin Valley subbasins whose Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) were deemed “inadequate” by the Department of Water Resources. That means that these subbasins have come under the jurisdiction of the State Water Resources Control Board with the potential of being placed in “Probation.”  The Kern GSAs have made remarkable progress in coordinating their individual GSPs and jointly submitted an updated GSP covering the entire Kern Subbasin to the State Board at the end of May. They also were successful in creating an umbrella GSA to provide SGMA coverage to the undistricted lands within the Kern Subbasin. They are awaiting a response from the State Board on this new GSP, but folks in Kern feel very good about their prospects of getting the new GSP accepted and moving back into a regular reporting relationship with the Department of Water Resources.


The Tule Subbasin is located just to the north of Kern and consists of six GSAs. The Tule Subbasin is also subject to a “probation” determination by the State Board, which has scheduled a hearing to consider probation for the Tule Subbasin in mid-September. The various GSAs have not yet come together on a resubmission of a GSP that would address the inadequacies identified by both DWR and the State Board staff. The most contentious issues focus on the impact of groundwater pumping on subsidence. The subsidence around the Friant-Kern Canal (FKC) and the policies and actions/inactions of the GSA directly adjacent to the FKC is one issue. In fact, two water districts that are part of the Eastern Tule GSA (ETGSA) have given notice that they wish to leave that GSA and form their own GSA in part over internal disagreements with the direction of ETGSA with regards to pumping rules along the FKC. Another issue is a difference of opinion between Delano Earlimart GSA and their neighbors over allowable subsidence in the southern part of the Tule Subbasin. Then there is an ongoing dispute between two Tule GSAs over the effects on subsidence and groundwater levels that emanate from a well field that pumps water out of the Tule Subbasin and exports it to the Tulare Lake Subbasin. The Tule GSAs have brought in a facilitator to attempt to bring about resolution, but the likelihood of getting these difficult issues resolved in time to avoid a probation determination by the State Board at the hearing in September is looking increasingly doubtful.


The Kaweah Subbasin, just north of Tule has three GSAs who have been working in close cooperation to update their GSPs. The Kaweah Subbasin is also under threat of probation with an original November date for a State Board Hearing. Late last week the governing boards of the three GSAs held a joint meeting and collectively voted to submit an updated GSP to the State Board and the public for comment. The State Board this week informed the Kaweah Subbasin that their hearing date has been pushed back to January. Tremendous progress has been made by the Kaweah GSAs in addressing the inadequacies identified in their prior GSPs. The Kaweah folks are feeling very good about their prospects for avoiding probation.


Just to the west of Tule and Kaweah subbasins is the Tulare Lake Subbasin. The State Board held a probation hearing on April 16, 2024, and put the Tulare Lake Subbasin on probation. The Tulare Lake Subbasin has five GSAs. They were unable to submit an updated GSP before the April hearing but said at the hearing that they were about 90% finished with an updated plan and asked for a little more time to complete the work. The State Board did not grant them time and placed them in probation. The Probation designation requires every groundwater pumper producing more than 2 acre-feet per year to report their use to the State Board as well as pay a $300 per well annual fee and $20 per acre-foot of groundwater pumped to the State Board to cover the costs of probation. The makeup of the individual GSAs in Tulare Lake is quite different. There are three GSAs that are mostly made up of large landowners. There are two GSAs with a lot of domestic wells and smaller acreage farmers. The Mid-Kings River GSA (MKRGSA) encompasses the jurisdiction of the Kings County Water District and the City of Hanford and has a lot of smaller acreage farmers and domestic well users. This GSA was in the process of adopting fees to implement an updated GSP which they sought to submit to the State Board. The local community was concerned about the level of the fees and the manner in which the GSA board had proposed them, voting down the fees in the week following the State Board hearing. In addition, there was an organized petition drive asking the specific directors on the Mid-Kings River GSA board to resign. Instead, what happened was that the Kings County Water District, which provided three of the four Mid-Kings River board members and the staff for the MKRGSA, voted to withdraw from the GSA, leaving the GSA without a functioning board or staff and of course no fees or revenue to implement the GSP. Meanwhile the other GSAs in Tulare Lake are moving ahead with submitting their own individual GSPs and trying to put together a coordination agreement without a functioning MKRGSA. The other GSAs fully intend to make the case to the State Board that their GSAs are sustainable and should be excluded from probation as “good actors.”  While the State Board no doubt believes they had to enforce their deadline, they now own the chaos in the Tulare Lake Subbasin. There is still time to pull things together, but local leadership will have to emerge with a plan to put the pieces together or the Tulare Subbasin will be under State Board jurisdiction for a long time to come.

To the north of Tulare Lake is the Delta-Mendota Subbasin. This subbasin is also on the “inadequate” list and subject to a State Board determination of probation. There are nearly 20 GSAs in the Delta Mendota subbasin. The GSAs have made excellent progress in pulling together and developing a joint updated GSP that meets the deficiencies identified by DWR. There is optimism that they will avoid probation.


The Kings Subbasin is north of Kaweah and the seven GSAs there were able to get their GSPs approved by DWR and have been in various stages of implementing their plans. Things are progressing well in the Kings subbasin. Different GSAs do have different approaches. The McMullin Area in the west part of the Subbasin is building more projects and developing a large water banking operation. The North Fork Kings is at the beginning stages of developing a groundwater allocation program as well as doing projects. The Kings River provides a lot of surface water capture opportunities, particularly in wet years, and the Kings Subbasin is in pretty good shape.


North of the Kings is the Madera Subbasin. There are five GSAs in this subbasin and while they missed the January 31, 2020, deadline for submitting their original GSP, they were able eventually to get their GSPs approved by DWR. This does not mean that there are no challenges in Madera. The Madera Irrigation District has a very good surface water supply and formed a GSA of just their district. The vast majority of the remaining nearly 200,000 acres of undistricted land ended up in the Madera County GSA (MCGSA) governed by the County Board of Supervisors. There have been a number of lawsuits in Madera, some over fees and some over groundwater pumping allocations. Some of these suits have been settled, some remain. The landowners had narrowly approved a $243 per acre fee to pay for projects and management actions. A lawsuit against the fee was filed and a judge issued an injunction against the county collecting the fee. Due to a recent Appeals Court decision on another SGMA fee lawsuit, where the court clearly stated that a legally imposed fee has to be paid by the landowner before they can challenge the fee in court, MCGSA is seeking to get the injunction on the fee lifted and the suit dismissed. Just this week, a Madera Superior Court judge refused to dismiss the case and in fact, allowed the landowners an additional opportunity to add language to their case addressing the County’s suit. MCGSA had indicated that it would reevaluate the fee and take public input before reimposing the fee, but with this ruling, next steps have not been announced. MCGSA does have an aggressive groundwater allocation policy in place that is ramping down allowable groundwater pumping by 2% per year for the first five years increasing to a 6% per year reduction for years 6-20, ending in 2040 with about 12 inches per acre of allowable groundwater pumping.


North of Madera is the Chowchilla Subbasin. This subbasin is also under State Board consideration for probation because their original GSP was deemed “inadequate” by DWR. The GSAs in the Chowchilla Subbasin acted very quickly after the DWR “inadequate” determination in early 2023 and submitted an updated GSP to the State Board within weeks. The State Board has taken their time but has indicated to Chowchilla that they are looking very favorably at the updated GSP. It is likely that Chowchilla will be able to avoid probation. The Chowchilla Water District has its own GSA but works very closely with the other GSAs in the Subbasin.


North of Chowchilla is the Merced Subbasin. The GSPs for the Merced Subbasin were approved by DWR. In Merced as well, the entity with the most surface water, the Merced Irrigation District (MID), and the City of Merced formed a GSA of their district and city jurisdictions. Because they have a lot of surface water, managing groundwater is much easier. The other parts of the Merced Subbasin that are not covered by MID do have their challenges but are working aggressively to develop projects to capture and distribute wet year water for recharge. There will no doubt be groundwater allocations and fallowing, but they are making significant progress.


Turlock Subbasin is north of Merced. It was categorized as a medium priority basin by DWR and therefore was not required to submit a GSP until 2022. Turlock Subbasin is divided into two GSAs. The West Turlock area is dominated by Turlock Irrigation District, and they have very substantial surface water rights which put them in a good position to comply with groundwater regulations. The East Turlock GSA is more challenged and has long-term overdraft that will require a combination of new projects and land fallowing to bring the area into sustainability. DWR has sent back the original GSP as “incomplete.”  Turlock Subbasin is now in the process of updating that GSP with the hope of getting an accepted plan and avoiding the State Board process.


Modesto Subbasin is also a medium priority basin only because there is a significant urban population there that depends on groundwater for its municipal supply. The Modesto Subbasin is blessed with significant surface water assets and a long history of leadership and governance of their water resources. Their original GSP was deemed “incomplete” and they are in the process of updating it. But the Modesto Subbasin certainly has the capacity to be able to get to an approved plan with a minimum amount of disruption to the status quo.


The Eastern San Joaquin Subbasin is made up of nearly 40 entities that are working together and submitted a single subbasin GSP that was approved by DWR. The numerous entities are in various stages of implementing the plan in their region. There is a lot of surface water in this subbasin. So, achieving sustainability by capturing more wet year surface water and recharging it back into the ground will go a long way, if not all the way, to providing long-term sustainability for this subbasin.

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs

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