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As California Groundwater Regulation Unfolds, Some Feel Left Out

The state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is setting up a new ecosystem of water utilities. But with deadlines looming to satisfy the law, some low-income groundwater users say their needs are being ignored.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A new water well is drilled in an almond orchard in Tulare County in November 2014. During California’s severe drought, a record number of well-drilling permits were granted as farmers and others struggled to keep up with shrinking groundwater levels.Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

California’s sweeping effort to regulate groundwater extraction is still in its infancy. But many community groups are already concerned that too little is being done to involve low-income and disadvantaged residents in managing aquifers dominated by agriculture.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, adopted in 2014, was a Herculean achievement for California. Until that time, it was the only Western state with virtually no regulations on groundwater use. The new law requires critically overdrafted groundwater basins to adopt plans by 2020 to sustainably manage their aquifers. Basins identified as medium and high priority have an additional two years.

Sustainability, however, is a loose term under the law. Each newly formed groundwater sustainability agency can define it for themselves, depending on local needs. The stakes inherent in defining that term are huge. If “sustainability” considers only agricultural interests, for example, small water users with shallow wells could get short-changed.

For this reason, involvement by low-income groups, Native American tribes and domestic well owners is critical as the groundwater sustainability agencies are getting organized, said Jennifer Clary, California water programs manager at Clean Water Action, a nonprofit. Waiting to involve these groups until the groundwater sustainability plan is developed is too late, she said.

But that seems to be what’s happening in many situations.

“In disadvantaged communities, one of the reasons they are in the situation they’re in is because they’ve never had power and influence,” she said. “I think we see that pattern continuing. Smaller water users could end up losing out again.”

A total of 266 groundwater sustainability agencies have been formed across the state so far. Of these, 117 are in areas designated as critically overdrafted, primarily in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys.

Clary said many groundwater sustainability agencies are fixated on meeting the 2020 deadline to complete their groundwater sustainability plans. It’s a monumental task that requires gathering data on groundwater volume in each basin, measuring recharge and extraction rates and assessing effects on nearby streams and other surface water, among other things.

This work often requires hiring consultants, installing water meters on wells and, in some cases, drilling new monitoring wells. To pay for this work, many groundwater sustainability agencies are assessing fees on property owners, which requires a special election under the state’s Proposition 218 tax law. The groundwater sustainability agency would conduct the election and every property owner within the mapped boundaries of the agency would get to vote in the election. And according to Prop. 218, their votes are weighted according to how much land they own (large landowners get more votes).

Eduardo Espino, center, fills water containers he carried inside of a horse trailer on June 24, 2015, using a free water line paid for by the Porterville Area Coordinating Council in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The rural poor depend on groundwater and as farmers drilled deeper wells during the drought to water their fields, communities relying on groundwater struggled. (Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Caught up in all that work, some have put off reaching out to disadvantaged communities that rely on groundwater, private well owners who extract water for their own household use and even small domestic water utilities. All these groups have a role in achieving groundwater sustainability, but might know nothing of the process and its complexity.

“A lot of groundwater sustainability agencies are feeling pressure, and they’re nervous about being able to produce an adequate plan in time,” said Adriana Renteria, regional water management coordinator at Community Water Center, a nonprofit based in Visalia. “But that’s not an excuse for a complete lack of inclusion of all beneficial users of water. They are very much taking a hands-off approach in terms of engagement.”

That could become a serious problem down the road, because the groundwater sustainability agency may not have complete information on well status as it develops its sustainability plan.

For example, Renteria said, irrigation wells are typically much deeper than domestic wells. So defining sustainable groundwater elevation based on agricultural wells could leave domestic wells high and dry.

“Having those diverse perspectives in the room will help you have more sustainable plans,” said Renteria, who is working with a number of groundwater sustainability agencies to involve community members. “If people are not voicing their concern early on, there might be legal disputes they have to deal with once their plans are complete.”

Each groundwater sustainability agency is managed by a board of directors, which tends to be dominated by the largest water users in each basin: farmers and the irrigation districts that serve them. They are accustomed to managing canals and pumps and responding to orders for irrigation water from their customers. But working hand-in-hand with disadvantaged communities on water issues is not part of their historical skillset.

“Trying to bring these different perspectives together and form an agency out of those is obviously a challenge,” said Eric Osterling, water resources manager for the Kings River Conservation District, which helps manage water supplies and flood control in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.

Osterling’s district was hired as program administrator for two new groundwater sustainability agencies in critically overdrafted areas: the South Fork and North Fork Kings River groundwater basins.

In the process, he has worked closely with nonprofits like Community Water Center, Self-Help Enterprises and the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which have helped reach out to people who rely on groundwater to keep their towns vibrant, to bathe their children and grow their own food. He has also worked to get informational materials translated for Hmong and Punjabi radio stations, and translations are in the works for Spanish radio.

He has made evening meetings a priority so that residents can attend after work. Unfortunately, he said, that’s not the usual practice among many groundwater sustainability agencies. Instead, many groundwater sustainability agencies meet during the day because that’s when farm managers and irrigation district employees are on the clock anyway.

Clary said approaches like Osterling’s are more the exception than the rule, at least so far.

The state’s regulations don’t require disadvantaged communities to be represented on groundwater sustainability agency boards, said Trevor Joseph, a sustainable groundwater management agency manager at the state Department of Water Resources. But they do require groundwater sustainability agencies to engage with low-income communities, small well owners and Native American tribes and to prepare a communication strategy for doing so.

He said sustainability plans that are lacking these components are unlikely to be approved.

“It’s an important provision that should not be taken lightly,” Joseph said. “The regulations are very clear that these stakeholder interests need to be considered. The practical reality is, you’re not going to reach sustainability in many of these basins without inclusion of these entities.”

Grape vineyards near Porterville California, August 24, 2016. Use of agricultural fertilizers, as well as cow manure from dairy farms, have led to domestic wells in California’s Central Valley having dangerously high levels of nitrates, making the water unsafe to drink. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

The Department of Water Resources offers “facilitation services” to help groundwater sustainability agencies reach out to small and low-income groundwater users. And the department even offers to provide professional facilitators – at no charge – to help manage community meetings and encourage constructive dialogue.

However, only 10 groundwater groups have sought the help of these free facilitators, according to the Department of Water Resources, and only six of these are in critically overdrafted basins.

Another concern in many areas is water quality. Aquifers in many areas are severely degraded by decades of intensive farming, resulting in heavy concentrations of pesticides and nitrates in groundwater that can harm human health.

In the Salinas Valley, hundreds of small domestic water systems are plagued by high nitrate concentrations linked to farming. It remains to be seen if the new groundwater sustainability agencies in the region will do anything about contamination issues.

Horacio Amezquita isn’t hopeful. He is general manager of the San Jerardo Cooperative, which provides water and other services to one community of 350 people – mostly farmworkers and their families – in the Salinas Valley. High nitrate levels in the town’s groundwater made residents sick for years, until Monterey County agreed to connect the community to a new water source 2 miles away.

Amezquita said there are at least 35 other communities and 300 small water systems in the region with similar problems.

“There’s a lot of information that is missing,” he said. “And I don’t think the new groundwater sustainability agency is going to do that. They’re more concerned on the quantity (of water) and they’re talking very little on the quality. In reality, nobody is facing the problem.”

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