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Water Policy in California: Lots of Activity; Not Much Clarity

There is a lot going on in California water right now and I will mention a number of things in today’s update. So much of it is a work in progress, with some encouraging signs, along with some murkiness and concern.


Groundwater Recharge

The big picture success has to be the wet winter of this past year and the early reports of huge amounts of groundwater recharge that occurred. I heard an estimate this week that 3.8 million acre-feet of water was recharged in the Central Valley this year. That number likely underestimates the positive “change in storage” calculations that will be reported to the Department of Water Resources (DWR) by the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) when they make their required annual reports on April 1. This is because in addition to recharge, a lot of irrigation demand that is often met with groundwater was provided by surface water this past year. Also good news is the fact that most of the state’s storage reservoirs are above normal with a couple of caveats. The flood control lakes have to be drawn down this time of year to get ready to receive flood waters in the coming winter. And San Luis Reservoir, the huge storage lake located south of the Delta, is holding somewhat less water because more freshwater outflow to the ocean was needed this fall to push back a “King Tide” that induced a saltwater intrusion surge into the Delta. For now, the new water year is off to a slow start with below average precipitation through the first 2.5 months, but precipitation forecasts for this winter are optimistic.


Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)

On the policy/regulatory side, there are six subbasins deemed by DWR to have “inadequate” Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) and have therefore been referred to the State Water Resources Control Board for further state action. The State Board staff in October issued a recommendation to place the first of those six, the Tulare Lake Subbasin, into “probationary” status. Since October, there have been a few public meetings with the State Board staff and lots of private meetings, as well as lots of meetings and work being done to address the shortcomings of the GSP.


The other “inadequate” subbasins (Delta Mendota, Chowchilla, Kaweah, Tule and Kern) are also working hard to revise their plans. One of the frustrations the GSAs have is that the State Board staff recommendation for “probation” for Tulare Lake was based on the GSP submission the subbasin made in July of 2022. There has been a lot of work done since that time to address the concerns that were identified as deficiencies in the 2022 plan, but it seems clear that until the subbasins formally adopt revisions to those GSPs with those changes, the State Board will evaluate only what is officially adopted. Each one of these subbasins is working diligently to update their official GSP, but given the amount of work involved and the challenging, very costly decisions that have to be made by these local agencies, it will probably be late March 2024 at the earliest that new, updated GSPs can be formally adopted. The question then is, will the State Board take the time to evaluate the updated GSPs and postpone any probation hearing until they have taken the time to fully evaluate the new plan. Certainly, that would be the fair and right thing to do.


Kern River

Adding to the uncertainty in the Kern Subbasin is a court decision and subsequent acquiescence by the City of Bakersfield to a very significant change in usage of Kern River water. A number of environmental groups sued the City of Bakersfield with the goal of maintaining sufficient flow in the Kern River to sustain a fishery. The court granted a preliminary injunction that sided with the environmental groups, and the City of Bakersfield negotiated an interim agreement with them that has the effect of reducing Kern River supplies for a number of Kern water districts with very senior water rights. This action creating new conflict at the same time that all the Kern Subbasin GSAs are updating their GSPs to avoid going into State Board “probation” is creating a significant challenge.


The Delta

On the state side, so much of the imported water that makes agriculture and cities possible in Central and Southern California originates as precipitation in the northern part of California and is transported south through the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta region to the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal. Right now, there are two major regulatory processes going on that are evaluating that system with the goal of “updating” the regulations to meet various water quality and endangered species protection criteria. Read more about these updates here and here.


Both processes threaten to greatly reduce the amount of water that can be exported through the Delta. This past week a third major Delta related item was added to the mix in the long-anticipated release of the Environmental Impact Report for the Delta Conveyance plan, better known as the Delta Tunnel Project. The idea of building a facility to transport at least some of the water exported out of northern California from a spot upstream of the Delta has been advanced in various iterations ever since the projects were first conceived in the early 20th century. A Delta by-pass facility has not been built because it is very controversial and now very expensive. There is no clarity at this point how all these various processes are going to turn out. But, of course, uncertainty and change are not new to California water.

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs

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