Ag Today June 6, 2017

Slow trickle of progress on groundwater reform

Posted Jun 5, 2017 at 8:33 PM Updated Jun 5, 2017 at 8:33 PM

By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer

The first step toward sustaining one of San Joaquin County’s most precious resources took nearly two years.

And it may have been the easiest part of the journey.

Still, local officials sound optimistic about their efforts to comply with the state’s new groundwater mandate,largely because the county’s diverse, sometimes feuding water agencies have agreed to at least sit down at the table and talk about it.

“We’ve gotten this far,” San Joaquin County Supervisor Chuck Winn said last week, ahead of a major deadline at the end of this month. “It’s a challenge, but I firmly believe, based upon the past two years, that the agencies in this basin are more than up to that challenge.”

Groundwater is not a sexy subject. Many don’t realize that a portion of their drinking water, and a share of the water that sustains the county’s $3 billion a year agricultural industry, originates from underneath their feet.

Whether they know it or not, however, California’s efforts to reign in groundwater use likely will affect their pocketbooks in due time.

A state law passed in response to shrinking groundwater aquifers relies local agencies to plan for long-term groundwater sustainability. The 1,200-square-mile aquifer that underlies much of San Joaquin County is considered “critically overdrafted” by the state, meaning more water is removed from the ground than is naturally replaced.

To fix that, something has to give. Basically, local water agencies and their customers must either make do with less water, or they must raise the money to build infrastructure needed to capture more above-ground water from rivers and streams, which would take pressure off the underground supply.

Winn, like many others, prefers the latter approach. But it won’t be free.

“Nobody likes to talk about this,” he said, “but here’s the reality: Whatever we come up with is going to require a certain amount of additional revenue.”

And that’s where things get complicated. While the county’s groundwater is considered overdrafted as a whole, it’s worse in some areas than in others. Not everyone draws the same amount from this underground “savings account” — Delta farmers, for example, use very little groundwater. And some water agencies that have historically used a lot of groundwater already have spent millions of their own money to try and reduce their reliance.

All of which begs the question: When it comes to fixing the overall problem, how much should each party pay?

“The big question is how the distribution of costs is going to be equitably divided,” said Anders Christensen, general manager of the Woodbridge Irrigation District, which relies less on groundwater than some other districts because it has a senior water right on the Mokelumne River.

“The toughest part is yet to come.”

The good news is that the table has been set for that discussion, after nearly two years of effortinvolving the county, local water providers and an independent facilitator.

It will have to be a big table. Not wanting to lose control of their own destiny, no fewer than 17 local cities and other public agencies decided to form their own “groundwater sustainability agencies” as allowed under the law. That gives them the ability to write their own plans to achieve sustainable groundwater use — and the authority to enforce them.

Ultimately, however, all 17 of those new agencies have joined, or have said they will join, a new joint powers authority that eventually may vote on just one plan for the entire region, which is due in January 2020. This arrangement allows local agencies to maintain control while ensuring they all have a voice in the final decision.

At least one thing unites them: Fear of state intervention. If the effort fails, the state would have authority to make decisions about future groundwater use in San Joaquin County. And that may be enough to keep everyone talking, for now.

“I’ve really appreciated the commitment to resolve this issue, because we really have no choice,” Winn said. “We sink or swim together.”