Friant-Kern Canal
Friant-Kern Canal. (Photo: Dennis Silvas / Shutterstock.com)

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics 

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) has presented a new and different set of challenges for water leaders. Achieving groundwater sustainability and thereby protecting the future of agriculture in Kern County will be hard. The Kern subbasin is now facing its third strike.  Strike one was when DWR found its Groundwater Sustainability Plan to be incomplete. Strike two was when DWR deemed the revised plan as inadequate. The third strike confronting water leaders now is the possibility of the subbasin being put on probation – a condition where the State Water Resources Control Board takes over management of groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley portion of Kern County. 

SGMA provides the State Board with the authority to limit groundwater pumping, levee fees to cover the costs of their management, and to assess well use fees.  That scenario should strike fear into the hearts of hardworking farmers. It is government intervention and restrictions on everyday farming operations. And unlike water districts led by landowner-elected directors who share the same concerns as water users, farmers will have very little influence over the decisions of the State Board’s groundwater managers. It is a prospect where Sacramento-based regulators likely view groundwater users as poorly behaved children who need discipline. Some farmers in the Valley are contemplating legal action to prevent restrictions on groundwater pumping. However, even if they are successful, that does not make the numerous problems of groundwater overdraft go away. Without sustainable groundwater management, farmers will continue to drill deeper, more expensive wells and pump from greater depths until they cannot afford to pump, or the groundwater is gone.  

What is the path forward? Certainly, it requires the development of a new, pragmatic, and comprehensive water management plan for the subbasin that eliminates concerns with prior plans.  That work is underway, led by Kristin Pittack of Rincon Consulting, the subbasin point of contact.  But the development of a plan cannot be achieved merely by a team of consultants crunching numbers and developing reports. To be successful, its development is a process that is founded on a shared understanding and commitment by its stakeholders. The most effective processes are well-structured. Fundamental to such processes is a real understanding of the problem – the data that tells you where you are now and what you have to work with.  Significantly, “seek first to understand” is a critical element of one of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” 

The groundwater problem in Kern County is real, it is large, and it is pervasive. The Blueprint estimated that Kern subbasin needs between 400,000- and 450,000-acre feet more per year on average to be sustainable. The Public Policy Institute of California in their 2019 Report on “Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley” estimated an average annual decrease in groundwater in Kern’s subbasin from 1975 to 2003 to be 731,000-acre feet. Kern’s own Groundwater Sustainability Plan using the Todd Groundwater model for baseline conditions shows an average annual deficit of 324,326-acre feet. Only a few of the 18 districts and entities overlying the groundwater basin have a positive balance. A few others have been forthright in depicting their groundwater status.  But there has also been a tendency to deflect responsibility – to present the case that “our” area is in pretty good shape and that “others” are causing the problem. That perspective does not reflect a clear understanding of the problem. The physical solution involves recharging something in the order of 600,000-acre feet more water in wet years than is currently being recharged. That is an enormous, but not entirely impossible undertaking requiring extensive planning and collaboration. The alternative is to take land out of production, diminishing farm revenues, creating unemployment, and adversely impacting city and county budgets. 

The Kings subbasin, which developed an acceptable groundwater sustainability plan and thereby was one of the few subbasins in the southern San Joaquin Valley to avoid the risk of probation, developed a realistic estimate of their overdraft early in the SGMA process and divided that shortage between their GSAs in a mutually agreeable, but not likely comfortable, manner.  From that clear articulation of the problem, the GSAs knew their responsibility and could begin to develop realistic plans to address the problems.   

This is a difficult process. Once the consultants generate the data regarding a realistic estimate of the overdraft in the subbasin, that data needs to be used to gain knowledge and understanding, and from that shared understanding there is a possibility of trust. The generation of trust and the will to work together are essential if a solution to this shared problem is to be developed.  

Kern County has a long history of great water leaders.  From the earliest days of Miller and Haggin, that leadership has not been without controversy. The leaders tackled very big issues with outcomes that have determined the fate of the county. In more recent decades, water leadership has required the coming together of groups with shared interests, despite in some cases, also having long running grievances.  The development of the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project and the formation of the Kern County Water Agency were very significant events where water leaders came together to make decisions and commitments that would fundamentally alter the future of the county. In more recent years, the county saw the development of collaborative projects like the Pioneer Project, the Kern Water Bank and numerous other water banking programs that have improved the reliability of water supply for the county.  Collaboration makes solutions possible.  

Batter up! 

Project Processes. The top process reflects a typical stage structure employed proactively for a risky, large-scale investment. The first three stages are to ensure the right project is being implemented and require a thorough, well-articulated understanding of the goals and the problem. The last three stages are to ensure the project is implemented the right way. The bottom process depicts the evolution of human dynamics.  It was presented at the Fall ACWA conference by Heather Dyer, general manager of San Bernadino Water District, who led an extraordinary effort to obtain approval for two dozen long-term projects involving multiple agencies along the Santa Ana River. This second process is more passive and evolves from engagement into an effective proactive process (Graphic by Scott Hamilton). 

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