By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resources Economics
The challenges associated with achieving groundwater sustainability were abundant at a regional meeting of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) held in Visalia on October 14. But water leaders might be making the problem worse. Three Valley legislators—Assemblymen Vince Fong, Devon Mathis and Jim Patterson, in the first panel of the day—highlighted the difficulty in attracting state funds to the San Joaquin Valley given the small percentage of the state population that the Valley comprises, but when different representatives are being asked to support different projects, the Valley’s request becomes splintered and ineffective. They emphasized that the Valley must be unified and consistent if the Valley is to have an effective voice in Sacramento. Fights between water districts and blaming others for common problems is not helpful. Moderator Jonny Amaral from the Friant Water Users noted that the Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley was formed for that purpose and was gaining momentum.
The legislators also raised the alarm on some issues that might be headed to the Valley. The first was that elements in Sacramento feel the current system of water rights is inappropriate in managing the state’s surface water supplies, especially in times of drought, and would like to overhaul the state’s water rights system resulting in an attack senior water rights on rivers—an effort strongly opposed by ACWA. While that initiative was defeated in the last legislative session, they expected it to return. Second, they highlighted a sentiment by some in Sacramento that SGMA did not go far enough nor is it being implemented fast enough.
In the afternoon session, Lauren Layne, an attorney with Baker, Manock and Jensen in Fresno, asked her panel if having the State Water Resources Control Board intervene in SGMA implementation would be a good idea. The question was a relevant one for Stephanie Anagnoson, Director of Water and Natural Resources in Madera County, where there is no common path forward. One subbasin had supported a self-imposed tax to implement measures to achieve groundwater sustainability and a neighboring subbasin has opposed it. She saw three potentially major problems with state intervention: the possibility of immediate mandated groundwater balance, rather than phased-in approach; the imposition of fees, over which landowners have little say, to achieve SGMA compliance; and administrators who have limited understanding of local issues and little sympathy for the plight of groundwater users. Kassy Chauhan, from the Kings subbasin noted that the option for local control was a fundamental element in the SGMA implementing legislation but to maintain local control, plans to achieve groundwater sustainability must be real and those plans need to be implemented effectively. “We can’t have it both ways” she said. Either we must prove to the state that local entities can implement SGMA effectively, or the state will intervene.
Surprising to water leaders in Madera County was that, despite numerous, varied and sustained outreach efforts, landowners were caught off guard when they were required to reduce their pumping and were being charged more than $100 per acre to finance groundwater sustainability projects. The theme of the meeting was clear: farmers should be paying attention to SGMA implementation because it is real and it is happening; if landowners can’t resolve their issues, they should not be surprised when the state intervenes, and if state funds are sought to help implement SGMA, that request cannot be inconsistent between regions.