California Moves Closer to Imposing First Limits on Groundwater Use

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Raymond Zhong | Contributed

California has put a water-stressed farming region on notice for having “inadequate” plans to curb its overuse of groundwater, bringing officials closer to directly intervening, for the first time in state history, in the way growers manage their underground water supplies.

Regulators said Thursday that they would first hold a public hearing on the region, the Tulare Lake sub-basin of the San Joaquin Valley. The decision to even consider stepping in signals a willingness to take farmers to task for not doing enough to protect their aquifers.

Officials will need to tread carefully, said Andrew Ayres, an environmental economist at the University of Nevada, Reno. “If you really come down and you say, ‘We want groundwater sustainability and this is how we’re going to do it,’ that has trade-offs for local communities,” he said.

If, for example, farmers respond to water restrictions by fallowing their land, those plots could become sources of dust, worsening the region’s already poor air quality.

Why It Matters: Central Valley farmers are pumping up lots of water.

Farmers in California’s Central Valley, which includes the San Joaquin Valley, grow a big share of America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. But they do so by pumping out increasingly large volumes of water from beneath their feet, more than almost anywhere else in the country.

Groundwater is effectively a nonrenewable resource: It can take decades, even centuries, for nature to replenish aquifers, the layers of dirt and rock into which water seeps and collects.

In some parts of California, so much groundwater has been pumped out that the land has sunk irreversibly by a foot or more in a year. The most severe land subsidence has taken place in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, where the Tulare Lake sub-basin sits.

Background: The state has ambitious, but far-off, goals for halting overuse.

California didn’t regulate groundwater at all until 2014, when a package of laws committed the state to ending overuse in the most depleted areas by 2040. The laws, known collectively as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, task local authorities with drawing up plans for their particular groundwater basin.

Sustainability plans for the first 20 basins were submitted in 2020. The state’s Department of Water Resources reviewed them and said in early 2022 that 12 basins had incomplete plans. It then asked for revisions.

After evaluating the resubmitted plans, the department in March said they were still inadequate for six basins, all of them in the San Joaquin Valley: Chowchilla, Delta-Mendota, Kaweah, Kern County, Tulare Lake and Tule.

On Thursday, the state’s water regulator, the State Water Resources Control Board, said it would first consider further action in the Tulare Lake sub-basin, a 540,000-acre area where farmers grow grain, tomatoes and other crops.

The plan for the basin isn’t specific enough about how it would address the damage caused by groundwater overuse, said Natalie Stork, a manager at the state board. Last year, for instance, 27 of the area’s wells went dry, and the state estimates that 700 wells could be tapped out in a future drought. The land has sunk by as much as six feet in the past decade or so, forcing residents to raise local levees to protect the city of Corcoran from flooding.

This year’s winter storms in California temporarily refilled Tulare Lake, which was once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River. But that didn’t fix the area’s groundwater issues, Ms. Stork said. Much of the water in the lake was of poor quality, and clay in the lake bed stopped it from percolating into the aquifers.

The other five basins that were deemed to have inadequate plans are also facing threats, Ms. Stork said. But the board isn’t ready to announce potential intervention in those places because it needs more time to assess the situation, she said. “We are working through this as urgently as we can, but with thought and consideration.”

Paul Stiglich, general manager of South Fork Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency, one of the local authorities that developed the Tulare Lake plan, declined to comment.

What’s Next: Officials will decide whether to step in.

If the state board decides, at its April 16 hearing in Sacramento, to place Tulare Lake on probation, farmers there will have to start reporting how much water they pump from the ground and paying fees based on their pumping volumes. But the state still won’t be able to limit pumping directly.

Only if local agencies haven’t come up with an acceptable plan for ending overuse after at least another year could the board then enact its own plan to stop the aquifers from being wrung dry.

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