Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce SGMA presentation

By Valley Ag Voice Staff

The Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel of local water experts at its November 12th Government Affairs Committee meeting, and attendees learned why SGMA is going to impact us all.

Panelists, Jason Gianquinto General Manager Semitropic Water Storage District, Patty Poire Planning Manager for the Kern Groundwater Authority, and Jonathan Parker General Manager Kern County Water Bank, provided a very clear picture for attendees how Kern County will be impacted by SGMA, the decisions that got us to this point, and the solutions that could negatively impact our economy if new surface water supplies aren’t brought into the basin.

What is SGMA?

SGMA was a three-bill package that became law in 2015. It basically stated that all ground water basins must be managed and sustainable by the year 2040. Starting on January 1st, 2020 all ground water basins must have management plans submitted to the State. Should a basin not submit those plans or if they are not able to sustain the basin the State will step in and manage the groundwater basin. 

“Our Kern County water managers have been aggressive and proactive in dealing with SGMA,” stated Patty Poire during her opening comments. She added, “Our water managers are really good at moving and transferring water to allow agriculture to flourish.” 

During the presentation, it was evident that all three panelists agreed: State intervention in local water affairs was something no one wanted. This has been a driving effort to get the various water districts in the County on the same page.

Defining the Problem

Kern County sits in the Tulare Lake Basin of which we are part of the Kern County Sub Basin. A third of the sub basin boundary lies on the valley floor where intensive agriculture production is a way of life. Data suggests that of the 850,000 acres of agriculture land that is in production in the sub basin with roughly one third of this land being in permanent crops like trees and grapevines. Agriculture is so critical to our national, state and local economies that Kern is often the top or near the top of the agriculture producing counties in the entire United States. In recent crop reports, the industry is estimated to have an annual estimated value of over $7 billion dollars. 

Often many of us hear stories of biological opinions and the Delta Smelt, and this really doesn’t mean much to us. However, the environmental rules that went into place in early 2000 has resulted in a significant amount of water not being delivered to local water districts. Much of this water was paid for by these districts when the State Water Project was constructed. However, despite paying for the project, the new normal is that much of the water is left for environmental purposes, and it often goes out to the ocean where it is wasted instead of flowing to the districts and the ratepayers who paid for the project to begin with.

Jason Gianquinto pointed out the problem of depleting our groundwater was addressed years ago when our region’s water districts signed up for the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. These decisions should have addressed our reliance on groundwater. The data shows that our basins reliance on groundwater is equivalent to the loss of reliable surface water.

The chart provided during the presentation that highlights the State Water Project reliability is very telling. It shows that prior to 2000, and the environmental rules that limited water delivery, local water users could depend upon 90% of the water contracted through the State Water Project to be delivered. Since then, delivery has dropped to 58% reliability. 

The significance of this is evident when we look deeper at the numbers. It is estimated that for every 10% reduction in the State Water Project deliveries, 25,000 acres of ag land was driven to groundwater to sustain agriculture productivity. This deficit has led to Kern’s sub basin being listed as Critically Over Drafted. A designation that when you look at the baseline numbers shows a deficit of 350,000-acre feet per year. Mr. Gianquinto was quick to note, “The overdraft amount of the basin is the amount of loss of delivery of the State Water Project.” 

For those attendees this was the lightbulb moment. Finally, a water manager had articulated and showed the data in a way we understood. Without reliable surface water, we go to groundwater, this has led to overdraft and the annual overdraft is equivalent to one source of our basin’s lost surface water.

What are the solutions?

The answers articulated by the panel will need to come from both the supply side and demand side of the water equation. These projects will need to create a basin that is sustainable and one that reduces our reliance on groundwater. 

On the supply side, many projects will be initiated. Expansion of recharging groundwater will be a big solution, as well as enhanced conveyance from our basin’s surface water supplies. However, this will not be enough. Unique ideas like brackish water desalination projects, produced water programs, new water acquisition and water markets will all carry a steep price tag to increase water supply.

Demand will also need to be reduced to achieve sustainability in the sub basin. You can only reduce demand by using less water and many of those answers have impacts. Land fallowing will be a big part of the solution. This means Kern’s economy will be negatively impacted as land is fallowed and as shifts are made from high value permanent crops to rotational crops. Other solutions include greater irrigation efficiency, cropping patters, water markets, and financial incentives (paying users not to use water). 

Patty Poire was quick to tell the room, “This just isn’t an agriculture problem, it is a basin problem. Meaning that urban users will have to reduce their use as well.” She pointed to many of the programs being passed by the State. Such as the penalties urban users will have to pay when they use too much water. 

Reality for Us All

If reality hadn’t set in, the presenters added a key point that all in the room had to hear. Kern’s overdraft problem and solution aren’t easy fixes. The annual average reduced State Water Project deliver is 400,000-acre feet per year. This loss in reliable water, without the ability to utilize groundwater as in years past, will result in $4.2 billion in economic impacts to Kern County.

“This impact could be even greater,” added Poire. “Kern has many food processing facilities. As other regions reduce their water use, we could see greater agriculture crop reductions.” Meaning, our economy could suffer a double whammy as other regions limit their agriculture production.

The better answer is that the State should invest $4.2 billion a year in greater surface supply alternatives. This will limit the impact to the Central Valley and ultimately the State as a whole. Without a more reliable water supply, California will suffer the economic impacts of SGMA.

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