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Irrigation canal Tim Hearden
An irrigation canal brings water to citrus and other crops in and around the University of California’s Lindcove Research and Extension Center near Visalia, Calif.., in August 2018. Water shortages in the area have led to an overreliance on wells.

Agencies plan for water rationing under SGMA

Heavily overdrafted watersheds in the San Joaquin Valley to face cutbacks.

Local groundwater regulatory agencies set up under 2014 legislation in California are discussing future rationing schemes with irrigators as they scramble to submit long-term aquifer sustainability plans to the state by a deadline of early next year.

The plans are required by January 2020 for the state’s 21 most critically overdrafted or important basins. Most of those basins are in the San Joaquin Valley, where surface water cutbacks in recent years led to an overreliance on wells.

Local regulators are discussing a combination of new supplies and land-use conversions, says David Orth, a principal at the Fresno-based New Current Water and Land, LLC, a strategic planning firm.

Orth predicts as much as 500,000 to 750,000 acres of land in the valley will shift from irrigation to alternative uses unless new water sources are developed.

“What we have is a serious problem coming our way,” says Mario Santoyo, executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority. The multi-agency entity is working to build the proposed Temperance Flat reservoir northeast of Fresno.

“As bad as things are right now, as soon as they start implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, for you as a farmer, the state is going to tell you yes or no,” Santoyo told growers during a workshop at the World Ag Expo in Tulare on Feb. 13. “Then you’ll know we are in a bad state.”

LAND VALUES DOWN

While the effects from implementation won’t really be felt by growers until 4 or 5 years from now, farms are already seeing an impact in terms of land value, says Steve Worthly, a former long-time Tulare County supervisor who leads the San Joaquin water authority’s board.

“The value of land has been cut in half,” he says. “People are realizing they’re going to have to fallow half or 60 or 70 percent of their ground. There’s very little demand.”

Worthly says farmers who are thinking about selling their land should “go talk to your neighbors” and see if they’re looking to expand their operations.

Environmental groups argue the coming changes are a veritable toll coming due after decades of unregulated pumping in California. Before then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the package of bills known as SGMA in 2014, the state’s water board could only regulate egregious waste or unreasonable use of groundwater.

The three bills gave local governments until mid-2017 to set up groundwater management agencies for each basin. While sustainability plans for overdrafted basins must be in place by next year, other high- and medium-priority basins must have plans by 2022 and sustainability for all basins must be achieved by 2040, the governor’s office has explained.

HISTORIC DROUGHT

While parts of the San Joaquin Valley have been in overdraft for years, the problem came to the forefront during the state’s historic drought in 2012-16.

That’s when growers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta went for a couple of years with little or no surface water, largely because of biological opinions on endangered fish, and in many cases had to drill deeper wells to water their crops.

“These are high-value crop lands” planted with such commodities as citrus and olives, Worthly says. “We’ve got trees that are 100 years old that are still productive.”

As water shortages killed several thousand acres of trees during the period, stepped-up pumping caused nearly 1,000 wells in the Porterville area to fail, requiring the state to truck in fresh water for residents.

LAND SUBSIDENCE

Another consequence has been subsidence – the sinking of land where the water table dropped. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration study in 2015 found that land in the valley was sinking by nearly 2 inches per month in some places, and a follow-up study by the agency in 2017 identified “subsidence bowls” including a seven-mile area in Fresno County that had settled up to 20 inches.

The Friant Water Authority has been making temporary repairs to its main canal, whose capacity has been reduced by more than 60 percent because of subsidence. The agency had hoped for money from an $8 billion water bond that was rejected by California voters in November.

Subsidence “infringes on the canal’s ability to use gravity to move water,” says Bryce McAteer, executive director of the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency in Porterville. He says the Friant-Kern Canal sank about 3.5 inches per year during the drought, which caused buckling.

“The capacity below the buckle is about 40 percent of the original design,” McAteer says.

265 AGENCIES FORMED

In all, 265 new local agencies have been formed, many of which have representatives from cities, counties and water districts working together to manage aquifer levels in a watershed, Orth says.

“For the 40-year history that I’ve been involved in water, the thing that has been pretty true is that water agencies tend to be very territorial,” says Santoyo, the San Joaquin water authority’s leader. “So today’s a new day.”

Under SGMA, users will only be able to pull out as much groundwater as was generated in that season, says Worthly, the former county supervisor. The newly formed GSA’s are hiring consultants and lawyers to help them seek solutions that will actually save groundwater, as the state Water Resources Control Board can step in and take over in a watershed if it’s dissatisfied with a local plan.

The 161,000-acre East Tule GSA has had numerous talks with customers as it considers allocation policies as well as recharge projects and other sources, McAteer says. One idea being floated is to have individual landowners share or trade allocations, he says.

Similar discussions are going on throughout the valley, says Molly Saso, water resources manager for the Turlock, Calif.-based Hancock Farmland Services. She manages water on about 55,000 irrigated acres for the firm’s clients.

One of her projects is to sink flood waters into 300 permeable acres on the Triangle T Ranch in Madera County, which has also entered a “subsidence agreement” with neighbors in which they drill only shallow wells and use them only when needed, Saso says.

“I think it’s very important for us to learn how to do projects with others,” she says.

TEMPERANCE FLAT

Perhaps the valley’s biggest collaborative effort is one to build the $2.6 billion Temperance Flat Dam, which would hold as much as 1.26 billion acre-feet just above the existing Millerton Lake.

Proponents had hoped to get as much as $1.3 billion from Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond passed by voters in 2014. But the California Water Commission only set aside $171 million for Temperance Flat in what Worthly called a “really ugly process.”

The group will use the money for environmental studies and other initial work while looking for funding from the federal Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act and for investments from public agencies that would get the added water, he says.

Worthly says he might have been tempted to walk away after being disappointed by the water commission, but the project is too important to the valley in light of SGMA.

“It was always understood that a new investor group would come forward,” he says. “That group is in the process of coming forward now. The goal is to make sure we do cover the region.”

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