SGMA hits 10th year as challenges persist

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By Craig W. Anderson

During the last decade of drought and floods, the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 has required local agencies to create a roadmap to protect water supplies in aquifer supplies for future generations. SGMA will mark its 10-year term in September.

The law was created during the 2012-2015 drought when surface water was in short supply and depleted groundwater nearly brought agriculture to a halt.

The mandate of SGMA over the decade has been for water managers to bring aquifers into balance by 2040 and 2042.

“It was a historic drought that we had just experienced, and it was the impetus for the passage of SGMA,” said the chair of the California State Water Resource Control Board E. Joaquin Esquivel. The drought left some California residents without drinking water.

SGMA has been a challenge for agriculture, so much so that researchers say the groundwater law could eventually cause the fallowing of 500,000 to 1 million acres of farmland.

The assorted water basins affected by SGMA have had to demonstrate progress toward the goals of 2040 and 2042. If progress couldn’t be shown, the state could take over and operate the program.

The initial move in that process began recently when, for the first time, the State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously to place the Tulare Lake subbasin on probationary status for failing to adopt sufficient measures to address “chronic overpumping.” The board said that “without stronger measures…wells are at risk of running dry” and subsidence of six feet over the last decade contributed to the board’s decision.

Also, following multiple warnings to Kings County officials about the deficiencies of the county’s SGMA plan, the water board put Kings County on probation, according to SJFB Executive Director Andrew Genasci. “It is located in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley which is more subject to challenges because of the lack of surface water as compared to San Joaquin County and other areas.”

He pointed out that small farmers in Kings County are concerned the state’s action on underground pumping and higher costs “could force them out of business.”

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has approved plans for 71 basins; for the 13 basins rated as incomplete, the DWR is working with them to “address recommended corrective actions,” a statement from the DWR said. The DWR also noted that it found “that sufficient action has not been taken to address one or more deficiencies in six subbasins: Chowchilla, Delta-Mendota, Kaweah, Kern County and Tule.”

“The plan for our area has been accepted,” said SJFB First Vice President Les Strojan. “Our district’s been considering and working on water issues for 40 years and we’re happy about that. If we were facing government coming here to take over, we’d be upset. But our district’s done what’s necessary to be in compliance.”

Paul Gosselin, California Department of Water Resources deputy director of sustainable groundwater management, said,” Local agencies are on the ground in their communities progressing towards a sustainable groundwater future for California, with support and guidance from DWR.”

He said the “milestones of the regulation have been met” and the next step is implementation.

However, SJFB, CAFB and other ag organizations still have questions despite the DWR’s positive opinion. In particular, agencies are mandated by SGMA to expand monitoring programs, reporting annually on groundwater conditions, implement aquifer recharge projects and designing allocation programs, all of which require more time, effort and costs.

“Those are the reasons this program began 10 years ago and continues until 2040-42,” Strojan said. “It takes time to accomplish all of this.”.

DWR also said plans must show how the basin will achieve long-term sustainability by limiting overdraft, land subsidence and impacts to drinking water.

“Many questions about the SGMA remain and we’re still in the process of working to ensure compliance,” Genasci said. “The state will do whatever’s needed to enforce compliance with the law.”

“The state is watching the other basins very closely for those they can declare non-compliant,” he said.

Genasci also explained that San Joaquin County is in better shape than other areas because of its good access to surface water, unlike the Southern Valley that has “…little reliable surface water” and San Joaquin County also has strong water rights. “But we could lose them and have to start all over with our water going to cities and urban areas due to legislative actions in Sacramento.”

He said the two primary items to maintain compliance are: no dry wells and no subsidence. Any county not in compliance has one year to get the items fixed. If a county is still not in compliance “the state will take over and operate it with bureaucrats with no guarantee they have necessary experience,” explained Genasci.

An inadequate determination triggers state intervention and SGMA authorizes the state water board to take over management of the basin.

Overall, all counties with basins must show progress and that they’re working toward compliance; everything must be done before 2040. “Those involved in getting compliant with SGMA can’t wait until the last moment,” Genasci said.

Will the process go smoothly? “At some point we’ll end up in a drought or the Legislature will pass laws to speed up compliance both of which will change the process, create more costs for landowners,” Genasci said.

Overall, the final implementation of the SGMA could be a difficult adjustment for California agriculture. Researchers studying the implementation of the groundwater law say they anticipate SGMA could result in the fallowing of between 500,000 to 1 million acres of farmland as the groundwater will be utilized by cities, counties, urban growth and sectors other than agriculture to guarantee safe drinking water is readily available throughout California.

Alexandra Biering, senior policy advocate for CAFB, said, “We’re starting to see people and organizations who are saying ‘Maybe SGMA’s not working, maybe it needs to be changed.’ Some outside the SGMA world are anxious to change the way the regulatory framework is implemented but doing that is not going to be effective or help …achieve sustainability any faster.”

She added, “If you add new additional requirements to move the bar or change what locals are supposed to do midstream, it is going to make it a lot more challenging for people to achieve that sustainability benchmark.”

SGMA will undoubtedly need the remaining 16 years of time and money to achieve its clean water goal while maintaining sufficient supplies for agriculture and adding another cost to ag and landowners.

With the increasing interest in eliminating nitrates from the water supply adding to the rising expenses for ag, Genasci said, “We have to communicate strongly with legislators and the Legislature. It’s vital to be involved; we need to at the table for these issues.”

Nitrate Control Program

A nitrate challenge is hitting the Central Valley and ag “…is just getting into it,” Genasci said. “The Harder Report from UC Davis researchers in 2013 said that nitrates in groundwater come entirely from ag, including dairies. Nobody wants anyone to have bad drinking water but it’s excessive to blame it all on ag.”

Nitrate is a “tasteless, colorless and invisible chemical that can cause health effects when found in high levels in drinking water. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CV Water Board) regulates nitrate discharges to groundwater from human activities. Compliance with past regulations was difficult to impossible so the CV Water Board initiated the Nitrate control Program as part of regulatory improvements which were adopted in 2018…

The Nitrate Control Program is currently in effect and details can be found at CV SALTS. – Nitrate Program.