(Photo: Steve Harvey/Unsplash)

Natalie Willis, Reporter, Valley Ag Voice

Since its implementation in 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has monopolized California’s political landscape, propelling various agendas among stakeholders in restructuring the state’s water infrastructure.

With six Central Valley groundwater basin plans rejected and deemed inadequate by the California Department of Water Resources, the State Water Board has begun an intervention process.

When Groundwater Sustainability Agencies initially formed, various stakeholders vied for a seat at the table, but small farmers were largely left out of basin plans, according to a white paper released by Civic Well.

“You know, I used to go to the meetings until I realized that this room might as well just be empty,” Bakersfield farmer Steve Brunni said. “Whoever’s sitting at the front of the room, could be state, could be DWR…but everybody in the room has a completely different opinion, and when that room goes to questions and answers, it lasts forever.”

When the six basin plans—Kern, Kaweah, Chowchilla, Tule, Tulare Lake, and Delta-Mendota—were rejected, Brunni was not surprised.

“To me, it was already predetermined, ‘You’re not going to make it. We are taking your water,’” Brunni said.

The six critically over-drafted basins were deemed inadequate by DWR for not addressing deficiencies in their sustainable management criteria, according to a press release from DWR. The deficiencies, Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management Paul Gosselin explained, primarily pertained to sustainable management criteria.

The criteria included the assessment of sustainability indicators, minimum thresholds, undesirable results, measurable objectives, and sustainability goals. Each GSP must also include a description of the monitoring objectives for the basin as well as its development and implementation.

Four primary events trigger state intervention according to the State Water Board—a GSA does not cover the entire basin, the basin is in critical overdraft, DWR fails the basin’s GSP, or the basin has significant surface water depletions.

In 2022, DWR rejected 12 critically over-drafted basins, providing 180 days to correct deficiencies and submit their basin plans.

“While six basins addressed these deficiencies, the other six did not make significant progress,” Gosselin explained. He noted that one basin had multiple plans, but they did not use the same data and methodology.

DWR has now made determinations for 46 basin plans, with a total of 40 approved. The intervention process will occur in addition to local management and continued involvement from the DWR, Gosselin explained. The State Board will temporarily manage the six basins’ groundwater resources until the GSAs create an adequate GSP.

According to Gosselin, DWR will remain involved with the six basin plans as they undergo state intervention. DWR also plans to implement outreach programs for the small agriculture industry alongside the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“It’s probably more important to get involved than during the planning process because now it’s being implemented,” Gosselin said. “The rubber is hitting the road, and this is where growers and all community interested should be at the table.”

There is no set date for the implementation of these outreach programs.

Soon after SGMA was passed in 2014—the firstever groundwater regulation in California—various political agendas began vying for water control. The politically waged war has broader implications for Central Valley farmers, specifically those with senior water rights.

“Politics are the biggest factor in all this and whichever influence the politicians will go—which is always the money,” Brunni said. “You know, over the years, you just kept watching them take away your livelihood, and they all started with the water.”

California’s State Water Resources Control Board began efforts to curtail pre-1914 surface water rights as part of a drought emergency regulation. According to a report by CalMatters, the board accused a small water system at the edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of ignoring a curtailment order. However, it was ultimately declared that the board lacked authority over senior water rights holders.

Currently, Assembly Bill 1337, represented by Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, passed the state assembly in May and is awaiting a Senate hearing. AB 1337 would assert control over senior water rights holders and grant the State Water Board authority to curtail diversions from rivers and reduce agricultural diversions in drought years.

Despite several lawsuits waged against the State Water Board by the City of San Fransico as well as other senior water rights holders, actions to limit agriculture water use have strengthened.

Brunni recalled listening in at water district meetings wherein farmers threatened lawsuits against state regulations.

“I remember the attitude of the state was, ‘You can say that all you want, we’re going to do what we’re going to do,’” Brunni said. “So, you start to see the dynamics form—the state really does have the ability to do whatever they want.”

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