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Water Muddle

It has been a while since I wrote something on water for the Friday Report. That is not because there is nothing happening, but rather a lot of what is going on in water right now lacks clarity or certainty about where it is headed.


Let’s first talk about the winter precipitation. There has obviously been significant precipitation in various parts of California, but from the reports I get at the meetings I attend, it is still not clear what the implications are for this coming year’s water supply. The State Water Project just raised their allocation to 15% from 10%, which is likely to go up some more, but is certainly way below last year’s 100% allocation.  The Central Valley Project allocation is more complicated and ranges depending on priority from 100% for very senior water right holders down to 15% for South of Delta contract holders and 0% for Friant class II contractors. These amounts also are very likely to go up as the winter progresses.


On other water issues, the Federal government this week took another step to support an agreement to reduce water demand on the Colorado River. The reason this matters to dairy is that a lot of feed is grown with Colorado River water and reducing water demand there will likely impact alfalfa prices over the long-term.


In the San Joaquin Valley, there are challenges everywhere. Not much news on the Kern River lawsuit where a judge required water to stay in the Kern River to support the fish. Affected parties seem to be negotiating a path forward. All 18 Kern Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) appear to be working together satisfactorily to revise their Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) to hopefully meet the requirements of SGMA and avoid being placed in probation by the State Board.


The Tule Subbasin GSAs are also working together to address their GSP inadequacies, but the Friant Water Authority recently sued the Eastern Tule GSA for an alleged breach of a contract agreement which requires ETGSA to provide up to $200 million to partially cover the costs of repairing the Friant Kern Canal which was severely damaged by subsidence.  In addition, on Thursday the State Board announced a September 17, 2024, probationary hearing for the Tule Subbasin and issued a 181-page staff report that recommends placing the Tule Subbasin on probation.


Ahead of the hearing, two public meetings are scheduled. The first is an on-line public meeting on Friday, April 5 from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Zoom link: In addition, there will be an in-person public meeting on Monday, April 8 at the Porterville Veterans Memorial Building, 1900 West Olive Avenue, Porterville, from 5:30-8:30pm.


The Tulare Lake Subbasin is facing an April 16 hearing by the State Water Board to consider placing this subbasin in probation. There are 5 GSAs in this subbasin and while they decided to submit a single GSP, the GSAs are very different in their makeup. They range from a geographically large GSA that has just a few dominant landowners with a few dairies in it, to a couple of GSAs that include a lot of smaller farmers and significant urban populations and then there are two GSAs that have very few acres or wells in the subbasin. Three of these GSAs are now implementing groundwater allocations, including fees. For many farmers in this area, SGMA is just now becoming real. There is no certainty about how this will all play out.


The three GSAs in the Kaweah Subbasin are working hard and making good progress in addressing the inadequacies in their GSPs. The surface water entities in Kaweah, which include the Tulare Irrigation District and a number of private ditch companies, were able to recharge significant amounts of surface water last year which is helping groundwater levels to increase. Trading systems are being designed that will hopefully enable lands without rights to surface water to purchase surplus water from those who have extra.


Going north from Visalia, the water situation is complex and challenging, but GSAs in Kings, Chowchilla, Madera, Merced and further north all seem to be making progress in carrying out their SGMA plans.


The Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley continues to advance as well. The Blueprint is engaged in a number of important efforts. SGMA will require a significant reduction in annual groundwater pumping, often estimated to be at least 2 million-acre feet per year. The Blueprint has made a preliminary estimate that over 900,000 acre-feet of additional surface water could be captured from the Sierra watersheds if we build the conveyance and recharge capacities to handle that much water. Recharging that much water from the watersheds directly to east of the Valley would go nearly halfway to closing the SGMA gap. To advance this effort, the Blueprint is the recipient of a $1 million U.S. Bureau of Reclamation grant with Fresno State Water Institute to develop a Unified Water Plan for the San Joaquin Valley. This planning effort will combine all of the various projects being proposed by GSAs and water districts and other local governments in the Valley and unify them into a comprehensive Valley-wide water plan. This formal report is then presented to Congress and forms the basis for the Bureau of Reclamation investments in water projects in the future. Read the Unified Water Plan here.


The other source of wet year water is Northern California. The infrastructure to move Northern California water to the Central Valley and Southern California already exists, but there are significant constraints that have been placed on those systems which limit the amount of water they can deliver. The water agencies with rights to that water have spent millions of dollars over the past decade on science for the purpose of learning how to improve the health of fish, wildlife and the environment that are impacted by these water projects. Right now, the major environmental regulations which govern the operations of these facilities are being reviewed by the state and federal agencies. The Blueprint has hired a highly qualified consulting team to coordinate with all of the water agencies and government regulators to add the Blueprint voice and the needs of the people and environments of the San Joaquin Valley to the decision-making process. The Blueprint has also identified major additional groundwater banking opportunities in the Valley. The Blueprint is in discussions with urban water agencies who are looking for partners to bank water in wet years for use in the urban areas in dry years. These partnerships have already been successfully developed in Kern County and more opportunities exist. The Blueprint has also begun a deliberate and structured farmer-to-farmer conversation with farmers from the Delta region. For too long there has been conflict between regions. Early indications from these discussions are that there is common ground and a great opportunity for collaboration and potentially great support for mutually beneficial projects.


Milk Producers Council is a founding member of the Water Blueprint of the San Joaquin Valley and I serve on the board and was recently elected board Vice Chair. You can learn more about the Blueprint here.

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs

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