Saving Groundwater
By Geoff Vanden Heuvel
7:33 am,
October 5, 2023

Note: I met Mr. Vanden Heuvel at a groundwater meeting last week and was impressed with his thorough knowledge of California water. I invited him to share some of it with our readers, and he said “yes.” —Trudy Wischemann

The Central Valley developed into an agriculture wonderland through the use of irrigation. Water from rivers and creeks makes up some of that irrigation supply, but water extracted from the ground comprises a substantial share of the water necessary for creating the bounty here in the Valley. 

Groundwater extraction remained unregulated in California for more than 160 years. In certain places there was a lot of groundwater and in other places, not so much. There was no restriction on where you could drill a well and how much you could pump. That all changed in 2014 with the State Legislature’s passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The term SGMA generally stirs up a lot of anxiety in people’s hearts. That is understandable because access to water is critical for sustaining our lives and our livelihoods. 

Since 2014, a tremendous amount of progress has been made at several different levels because of SGMA. The law required every part of California that overlays groundwater to become part of a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). That happened in 2017. Then those GSAs were required to produce Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) by January 31, 2020, which would describe in detail how each area would achieve groundwater “sustainability” by the year 2040. To accomplish this huge task, enormous scientific work was required by each GSA to determine how much water could be extracted from the ground on a long-term basis. That work included gathering thousands of well construction reports in addition to hundreds of thousands of water level measurement data from dozens of years in the past in addition to precipitation records from the past decades to build hydrologic models of how water flows underground in the Central Valley. 

There had never been a reason to obtain this comprehensive picture in the past and there were large segments of the Valley where gaps in groundwater level information existed. From the well construction information, a picture of the geology of the multiple aquifers in the Central Valley emerges which we are now beginning to understand more fully. With all this added information each GSA had to devise a strategy to gradually reduce groundwater pumping to reach that sustainability condition. While there is always more information to learn, each GSA was able to prepare a plan based on the best available knowledge. Nearly every GSA in the Valley submitted a GSP by the January 31, 2020, deadline. 

After adopting the plans, the SGMA law authorized the GSAs to implement them right away. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) took two years to review the plans and then suggested revisions to those plans, which each GSA made. After DWR reviewed the revisions, some of the Valley plans were accepted, but some were not. DWR determined that the plans in six of the Central Valley subbasins were “inadequate.” Those six subbasins include the Kaweah, Tule, Tulare Lake, and Kern Subbasins. Even though the plans were deemed “inadequate” they still remain in force. Officials from the GSAs in those subbasins are working diligently to update their plans with input from the State Water Resources Control Board to address where DWR thought the plans came up short. This requires much closer coordination between individual GSAs within each subbasin. 

A major concern of DWR is that continued groundwater pumping in excess of what is sustainable on a long-term basis will cause groundwater levels to continue to drop and cause more wells, particularly domestic wells, to go dry. The State Water Board is insisting that the updated GSPs provide mitigation measures to replace domestic wells that go dry because of continued over-pumping during the ramp down period. The GSAs are now in the process of evaluating the cost of replacing those wells against the cost of reducing groundwater pumping at a more rapid pace. This is a difficult decision to make, but one that cannot be avoided. If the plans do not achieve an “adequate” determination by the State Board, then the State Board has the authority to place the subbasin in probation. That has not happened yet to any subbasin and GSAs are working hard to keep that from happening. 

It can be frustrating to deal with the restraints that SGMA imposes. But real progress is being made. There will be adjustments that will cause real pain for agriculture and our communities. We probably should have regulated access to groundwater decades ago, but we did not. Very productive farms were developed in places that did not have access to surface water. They did nothing wrong but are now in a very difficult position. There are areas that have access to a lot of surface water, particularly in wet years, that can be stored for use in dry years and for use by neighbors. SGMA has completely changed the attitude of farmers in those wet years. No longer is flood water viewed as a nuisance. Capturing that water and recharging it into the ground is the key to a better future. The path forward is difficult but the fact that there is a path forward should be encouraging to us all.

This column is not a news article but the advice of the writer and does not reflect the views of Mid Valley Times newspaper.

About the Author

Geoff Vanden Heuvel
Geoff Vanden Heuvel is the San Joaquin Valley water policy representative for the Milk Producers Council since 2018 after being a dairyman and citizen water activist in Chino for 40 years. He lives in Tulare with his wife Darlene.