New groundwater rules confusing and costly, farm water managers say

An irrigation pipe has been disconnected at a cotton field in this 2008 photo.
An irrigation pipe has been disconnected at a cotton field in this 2008 photo. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

Farm water managers said new rules for managing underground supplies are confusing and potentially expensive.

The upcoming written regulations for groundwater management agencies need major adjustments, central San Joaquin Valley water district managers told state officials.

The regulations are slated to go into effect June 1; the state Department of Water Resources is taking public comment about them until April 1.

Groundwater management agencies will be the local entities charged with maintaining underground supplies.

At the public meeting last week attended by about 100 farmers and water district managers, several expressed worry that groundwater basins in San Joaquin Valley will have multiple agencies, but the kind of smooth coordination among them that the regulations anticipate may be difficult to achieve.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion,” said Mark Larsen, general manager of the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District, which is setting up a groundwater management agency for some parts of the Kaweah basin in the Visalia area, while other entities in the region have established neighboring agencies.

The state is aware of the concern about coordination, said Dan McManus, senior engineering geologist at the Department of Water Resources’ sustainable groundwater management program.

“We’ve heard that creates challenges at the local level,” he said. “We’ve heard that quite a bit.”

I think there’s a lot of confusion.

Mark Larsen, Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District

Groundwater management agencies are being established in basins around the state, and must be created by mid-2017.

Dennis Mills, general manager of the Kings County Water District, said state regulators want to have only one point of contact per basin, which may not be realistic.

“It is expedient for DWR, but not required in the legislation,” Mills said.

Additionally, “the regulations are an unfunded mandate” because for many agencies they will require drilling expensive new wells for monitoring groundwater levels, he said.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, approved by the Legislature as the California drought took hold with a vengeance, is meant to help California survive droughts without depleting underground reserves.

Under the law, groundwater basins and sub-basins throughout California must be in balance by 2040.

Basins in the central San Joaquin Valley are among the most overdrafted in the state.

Dick Schafer, watermaster of the Tule River, whose flows are used to irrigate farmland, said the regulations go too far.

“They exceed the intent of the Groundwater Management Act” and would add to the cost of preparing the sustainability plans that each agency must prepare under the law by 2020, he said.

Water lawyer Ernest Conant of Bakersfield said the regulations take a “one size fits all” approach when there are different issues among basins.

“The regulations have overreached,” he said.

Not everyone who spoke was a farmer.

Sopac Mulholland, executive director of the Sequoia Riverlands Trust land preservation organization in Visalia, said regulations call for “substantial compliance” in achieving sustainable groundwater but the wording leaves too much wiggle room and should simply be “compliance.”

“When you look at the facts, wells are going dry already,” she said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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