Stacie Ann Silva (far left), principal owner of Altum Aqua Logic, and Aaron Fukuda (left), General Manager of the Tulare Irrigation District and Mid-Kaweah GSA, participate in a guest panel on SGMA at the 2024 World Ag Expo. (Photo: Valley Ag Voice) 

By Valley Ag Voice Staff 

For years, water woes have plagued growers in the Central Valley. From decreased groundwater allocations and critically over-drafted basins to flooded acres in 2023, farmers and ranchers have tirelessly worked to secure the future of their land and basins. While the 2024 World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, highlighted this plight, it also showcased vast improvements in recharge efforts and addressed challenges with SGMA compliance.  

According to Aaron Fukuda, General Manager of the Tulare Irrigation District and Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency, several projects are underway to improve groundwater sustainability in Tulare. 

The Mid-Kaweah GSA, in partnership with the cities of Visalia and Tulare as well as the Tulare Irrigation District, has been at the forefront of innovative water recharge, stormwater capture, and groundwater sustainability projects despite looming probation on Tulare Lake. 

Current projects include roughly 1,300 acres of recharge basins, ranging in size from 15 acres to 150 acres at each site. One of their flagship projects — the Okieville Recharge Basin — is nearing completion and is designed not only for groundwater recharge but also to provide drinking water for the Okieville community.  

The GSA has also adopted several linear recharge basins that convert creeks that run through cities such the Packwood Creek in Visalia. 

“We put in five automated check structures that create five pools of water in the creek and it percolates water immensely,” Fukuda said. “We lose about 50 cfs or 100 acre-feet per day in that channel through the city, so we’re converting Cameron Creek, which is just south of Packwood Creek, into that same system.” 

Fukuda highlighted the willingness of growers in Tulare County to engage in discussions about groundwater allocations and work toward solutions in unfavorable conditions. In response to the drought and grower concern in 2022, an emergency ordinance was implemented, measuring groundwater pumping through evapotranspiration.  

While placing a maximum allotment cap on groundwater pumping was not ideal at the time, 2023 essentially turned this action from a restriction to an incentive. Fukuda explained that growers applied water strategically, leading to historic diversions and potentially establishing a groundwater market.  

“In 2023, when we had the wet year when we were announcing a flood release, we were asking for help, for people to take water because we had water coming out everywhere, the growers understood that if they over-applied water in the wintertime, it’s just gonna percolate into the ground and they were gonna get a credit,” Fukuda said. “It’s the same thing as your online bank — you have a savings account, a checking account, and maybe some other special account and you put money in, and you take it out.” 

Essentially, some growers put so much groundwater credit into the ground that they can sell it to those who do not have enough. 

Despite innovative efforts to enhance groundwater sustainability, SGMA compliance remains a minefield for many Central Valley growers, GSAs, and irrigation districts. According to Stacie Ann Silva, principal owner of Altum Aqua Logic, the most common misconception about SGMA is that it is not a big deal. 

“I would argue that it is the most significant piece of water legislation in over 100 years and is going to fundamentally change how we operate agriculture properties, how we operate our water rights system, and kind of how we move through the transition to sustainability is going to alter most aspects of agriculture,” Silva said. 

In her presentation at the World Ag Expo, “Implementation and Implications of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Silva explained that roughly 500,000 acres are estimated to be out of agricultural production by 2040 due to water supply issues. 

Nearly all those acres will be in the Southern San Joaquin Valley due to severe overdraft. 

To reach sustainability, GSAs develop sustainability plans, which include projects and management functions such as recharge projects, groundwater markets, land fallowing, and repurposing.  

The risk of not reaching sustainability entails the State Water Board taking control of an inadequate basin. 

“[GSAs] care a lot about the things that you guys care about, and they are making very tough decisions that they know will impact themselves and their neighbors, and they make them with the understanding of the impact of those decisions,” Silva said. “I’m sure the people that work at the State Water Resources Control Board are very kind [but] they do not have that same perspective. They do not have the local perspective, and that is what you lose if, as a GSA, you fail to meet the requirements set forth by those agencies.”  

While SGMA compliance is daunting, both Fukuda and Silva encouraged growers to take control of their future. 

“And farmers, if they all got together collectively, it could be a pretty powerful voice of reason and solutions…SGMA has created a world of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ — guys that have surface water [are] the haves, and the guys without surface water [are] the have-nots,” Fukuda said. “What I would advocate for growers to do is to take their future into their hands, sit down with their local leaders, and have a discussion.” 

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