Forum Speaks Volumes on
Reality of Over Draft Problems
By Don A. Wright, Special Correspondent
The American Groundwater Trust presented a forum titled “San Joaquin Valley
Groundwater Overdraft” at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California on Monday,
November 18, 2013. More than 250 people attended the day-long event. There was
a good representation of water community leaders; both on the four panels and
in the audience. The presentation pretty much stayed on schedule. The speakers,
with one exception we’ll get to later, were knowledgeable and kept the
audience’s attention. No one droned on too long.
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That and free range coffee, fruit and snacks kept the butt fatigue at a
minimum. In other words folks stayed seated and paid attention. While no silver
bullet emerged to cure the Valley’s groundwater woes a lot of information was
shared from a variety of perspectives. Certainly the Tulare Basin and Southern
San Joaquin Valley has some major challenges with both surface and groundwater,
the forum showed things could be much worse. I believe the overall arc of the
forum could be summed up as – Unity is vital. The region will have to work
together and everyone will have to become engaged. That’s not a new concept but
rather one that has served groups of people facing big obstacles well.
The presentation began with Paul Hendrix, General Manager of Tulare
Irrigation District welcoming everyone and introducing Tulare County Supervisor
Pete Vander Poel. Vander Poel in turn welcomed everyone and said Tulare
County will continue to stand by agriculture. Vander Poel looks young; he’s a
good speaker and understands the bedrock importance of ag to the Valley’s
American Groundwater Trust’s Executive Director Andrew Stone made
some remarks in what I took to be a British accent (I know we’re the ones with
the accent.) Stone said AGT has the goal of, “. . . getting the truth out.” He
said too often science can be trumped by politics. He quoted Article X, Section
Two of the State Constitution that declares water must be used in a beneficial
manner. Stone, like almost all the speakers used power point slides. One
interesting crowd pleaser was the cover of a Delta Smelt cookbook.
The first panel was titled, “Groundwater Conditions: Then and Now in the
Valley” and was moderated by Kings River Conservation District General Manager Dave
Orth. Orth said groundwater management has been statutorily under local control
in California, but overdraft status is the new scorecard for efficiency. The
increased demand is outpacing surface supplies and data collection is becoming
a priority for the regulators.
Claudia Faunt, Hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Service spoke
about the history of groundwater in the Central Valley. She pointed out 25
percent of the United States food supply is grown here in the Valley. While
there might be climate change she said there has always been climate
variability in the Valley. Faunt thinks the San Joaquin Valley is the poster
child for conjunctive use. She talked about subsidence and the relationship
between draught, over-drafting and Corcoran clay. Something I didn’t know,
20-percent of the Valley’s pumping is M&I.
Dick Moss, Provost & Pritchard spoke next about supplies and said there are 3
million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley. The Tulare Basin is a closed
region with little outflow during normal years. The Valley uses 12 million a/f
annually. On an average year the Kings River produces 1.15 million a/f, the
Kaweah River 404,000 a/f, the Tule River 136,000 a/f and the Kern River 714,000
a/f. State Water Project supplies 1.2 million a/f, the federal Central Valley
Project supplies 2.7 million a/f.
The rest of South Valley supplies come from groundwater pumping. Due to
biological opinions the SWP has lost 240,000 a/f, the CVP 325,000 a/f with San
Joaquin River restoration posed to make matters worse. Up until the 1920s
stream diversion was the main source of irrigation water. Then efficient pumps
were made affordable. This caused a drastic decrease in groundwater and
resulted in the SWP and the CVP. Things were rolling along pretty good until
the late 1980s when Congressman George Miller pushed the CVP Improvement
Act through congress. This killed the Mid Valley Canal; an additional Delta
feed conveyance that would have serviced the center of the Valley.
Moss said there currently isn’t enough storage and new reservoirs are
expensive. As supplies tighten and groundwater overdraft increases the options
may include increased fallowing to preserve permanent crops, more urban
conservation and more control over groundwater.
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Greg Zlotnick, San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority spoke about
the State Water Resources Control Board. Zlotnick said the idea of unregulated
groundwater is a myth. Most groundwater is under some form of local control.
Recently the Delta Stewardship Council made the claim that groundwater
overdraft is an impediment to the coequal goals of habitat and supply. This
could pave the way for the State Board to take over groundwater management if
the overdraft situation continues to worsen. And right now says Zlotnick, Southern
San Joaquin Valley pumping is unstainable and is causing overdraft.
The State Board’s authority over groundwater is limited by Water Code
Section 1200 that states the Board only has jurisdiction over underground
streams. But, the State Board has other options. Zlotnick said a court ruling
in 1971 (still under appeal) tied groundwater to the Scott River.
“We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities,” read a slide.
Zlotnick asked, “Who will be the bad cop and who will be the good?” I think he
seemed to feel it would be better to have the local folks be the bad cop,
because it would still be better than what Sacramento could do.
Derrik Williams, president of Hydro Metrics talked about groundwater
modeling and its role in setting policy. Williams started out by saying good
groundwater modeling is integral to good policy. Stakeholder involvement is
necessary and the model’s formulation starts with objectives. Models provide a
catalyst for action; developing acceptance and consensus. The model should
assess current and future conditions by helping to implement the variables of
unseen and unintended consequences.
Williams won my heart when he said, “If you ask your modeler a question and
the response is, ‘It’s very complicated’ – Fire him!” The modeler must be more
than a number cruncher. He said some things to look for in a model are:
stakeholder input, integration with demand side analysis and the economic
Orth said when he hears interest about
groundwater coming from Sacramento he harbors great concern. When he hears
interest about groundwater coming from growers he has hope.
The first questioner took the microphone and proceeded to address the
audience about population growth and it was inappropriate and not germane to
the topic. I though Orth handled it well by refocusing the rant as a question
about population as a groundwater stressor. Zlotnick responded by reiterating a
consequence of finite supplies will be an increase in urban conservation.
Moss said he expects more litigation against urban development over water
supplies and growers may have to stop placing permanent crops in areas without
surface supplies. Zlotnick added the purpose of storage has changed from flood
control and supply to environmental usage. The panelists all agreed the local
counties have to become partners in preventing further groundwater overdraft.
“Counties have the land use police powers,” said Zlotnick.
Mark Larsen, General Manager of Kaweah Delta Water Conservation
District moderated the next panel titled, “Groundwater Conditions: Impacts We
The first speaker was Chase Hurley, GM of San Luis Canal Company who
spoke about the serious subsidence taking place in Merced and Madera Counties
along the Chowchilla Bypass. The land had been grazed and some row crops
planted for decades. New landowners punched deep wells through the Corcoran
clay layer and noticed some well head rising up a couple feet from the ground.
The land has subsided almost two feet in less than three years.
The subsidence threatens the Bypass which in turn threatens flooding in the
area. The SJR restoration could also be threatened as the Bypass is a possible
route for salmon. Some solutions and efforts are underway to arrest the
subsidence. The landowners are willing to work to correct the situation and
plans to keep wells above 300 feet should help. Neighbors are sharing water and
the option of annexing the land into Madera Irrigation District is being
considered. There is also the possibility of a new diversion on the SJR to help
Jason Gianquinto, GM of Semitropic WSD talked about planning for
improved groundwater management in Kern County. Gianquinto said when he’s asked
about groundwater his reply is, “I’m on top of it.” He said most of the Valley
portion of Kern County is in districts served by the SWP, CVP or Kern River
supplies. If I heard correctly he said this surface supply totals an average of
almost 2 million a/f. In 1991 the state project delivered zero a/f and that
sparked the groundwater banking development. Kern County’s farm gate crop value
was $6.2 billion in 2012. It takes 3-4 million a/f to water the 887,000 acres
of farmland, with 54 percent of that land in permanent crops. Permanent crops
show a return on investment many, many times that of other crops and Kern
growers have come together to work on the area’s groundwater conditions.
Thirty-one entities have gathered to develop principles of dealing with ground
and surface water in a regional manner. Fifteen of those entities are funding
the work to complete the Kern County Water Management Plan.
Peter Leffler is an Associate Hydrologist with Fugro Consultants
and spoke about the pending oversight of groundwater in the Paso Robles Basin.
Two-thirds of the water pumped has been going to ag use but M&I usage is
increasing. Ag has been declining as alfalfa and other high usage crops are
being replaced with grape vineyards for wineries. An urban/business corridor
has formed around the north/south High Way 46 route. This increased density and
groundwater usage has caused a 70 feet drop in groundwater levels. A 2010 study
found the basin’s ability to recharge has been maxed out and San Luis Obispo
County declared the area a Level Severity III. The county can control land use
and building permits but doesn’t have a direct control of pumping.
Folks in the Paso Robles Basin are trying to form a regional water district
that can help ensure any new development is water neutral and banking can be
developed. This past August the Board of Supervisors passed an urgency
ordinance. A moratorium on new ag development that isn’t water neutral is also
in effect. There are two groups trying to form a water district. One group,
supported by established farming interests wants a form of water district
governance where the votes are weighed by acreage owned. The other group wants
a form of irrigation district type governance with one man one vote counted.
Leffler said, being political, the county is courting both factions.
Larsen advised those looking for solutions to remember the importance of
interaction with landowners. Don Mills of Kings County asked Hurley how
the government is being portrayed to the landowners. Hurley said whenever
possible he brings landowners to meeting with government agencies. He said the
bureaucrats and elected representatives pay a lot more attention and the
landowners sit up straight and stay alert. It does both sides good to hear from
each other. Someone pointed out when land is fallowed nitrogen removal also
stops. Larsen said the City of Visalia is charging a fee to convert farmland to
urban areas with the revenues used to at least partially offset the loss of
recharge and mitigate other matters that arise when ag land is converted.
Lunch was next and the food was very good; beef, chicken steamed
vegetables. There was some good bread with its own dipping sauce. I asked the
server what kind of sauce it was and she said, “It’s bread sauce.” I didn’t
push it. But the sauce did taste good. As soon as most folks had distended
their abdomens a bit an almost palpable loss of energy settled over the sated
congregation. That only made matters worse for the special guest speaker. State
Senator Andy Vidak and Assemblyman Jim Patterson were slated to
speak on overdraft in the Valley but Vidak was ill and couldn’t attend. That
left things in Patterson’s hands or larynx as it were.
Patterson began his talk by stating he was a freshman legislature who is
trying to learn. I know I learned a lot from what followed – the number one
lesson being – if you don’t know what you’re talking about, keep it brief. The
recurring phrase, “We’ve got to . . .” was used many times; i.e. we’ve got turn
on the pumps, we’ve got to pass a water bond with storage, we’ve got to
modernize our infrastructure and so on. Unfortunately there wasn’t any “How to”
mentioned. And there were a couple of statements that had a bizarre ring to my
Patterson said environmental policy was putting money in the bank accounts
of the regulatory agencies (I didn’t realize the agencies had bank accounts)
and he said, “The Republicans in Sacramento will be the very last to know about
what will be in the water bond,” the very last to know? That’s a bit chilling.
He closed by asking everyone to help restore Republicans to power in
Stone moderated the third panel titled, “Groundwater Management: How Are
Others Taking on the Issues?
Dr. Bridget Scanlon, Senior Research Scientist, Bureau of Economic
Geology in Austin Texas was the first to speak and her subject was, coming to
terms with overdraft in Texas. In a charming Irish lilt Scanlon presented some
fairly bleak findings and comparisons of the Texas high plans and the Southern
San Joaquin Valley. Be glad the Valley’s aquifer isn’t fossil. The aquifer
under primarily the Texas Panhandle is the Ogallala and whatever recharge that
takes place is slow and minute as the land in mostly clay. Looking on the
bright side Scanlon pointed out there are no problems with endangered fish as
there are no rivers to speak of in the area.
Scanlon spoke about using satellites to monitor changes in the topography.
The State of Texas has models for every aquifer in the state. There is some
volunteer metering by landowners but so far the data is unclear. There is also
a problem with salt build up.
Scanlon also spoke about “fracking” for oil and gas development. It takes
water, but not so much as one would think. There are two large reserves or
plays in Texas. One under Fort Worth known as the Bennett Play and over towards
Houston there is the Eagle Ford Play. To fully develop the Bennett Play would
only require 160,000 a/f. And, there is no harm to aquifers or wells from
fracking. There have always been, even before any oil exploration, a number of
areas where methane seeps into the groundwater and it will ignite at the
faucet. That has nothing to do with fracking.
If you follow the Ogallala Aquifer to the north you’ll come to Kansas. The
next speaker Burke Griggs is the Assistant Attorney General of Kansas
and also the Consulting Professor at the Bill Lane Center for the American
West, Stanford University. Griggs spoke about dealing with overdraft in the
Ogallala Aquifer – the Kansas approach. Griggs said surface water counts for
only five percent of usage in Kansas. The western portion of the state has
experienced the most depletion and recharge is only one to two percent. Also
looking on the bright side he said the USBR isn’t a problem because there are
no suitable places for reservoirs. Kansas water law doesn’t differentiate
between surface and groundwater. If there is any change in the use of water,
the new use becomes junior to the other uses in the area.
Kansas has groundwater management districts and a State Chief Engineer who
approves the district rules and regulations. The state has also come up with a
program for groundwater management that not only isn’t popular with
stakeholders, but also creates a sing-song acronym. The Intensive Groundwater
Use Control Area or IGUCA was meant to help with the serious over-appropriation
of supplies. Although the IGUCA membership is nil self-compliance by Kansas
growers is above 90 percent. No one wants to involve the state because water
rights in Kansas are property rights, not just rights to usage. Griggs said this
creates some sticky political, regulatory and legal consequences.
For this reason and fear of outside litigant involvement landowners have
rejected IGUCA and have developed local plans often far more strict and
stringent than any the state might have devised. Griggs told about one group
that wanted to make non-compliance a felony. He had to explain to them that
would be putting their neighbors in prison, not the county jail, and they
An idea that has been presented in the past is the Kansas Aqueduct. It
would bring 1.3 to 3.4 million a/f of water from the Missouri River in the
northeast, 400 miles uphill over a 3,000 feet elevation difference to the high
plains in the northwest portion of the state. It would take one or two nuclear
power plants to supply the energy needed to move that water and of course the
project is very expensive and a hard sell.
So, Griggs said local control is the best way to manage groundwater. He
said the local political culture if far more important than whatever legal
regime is in place. He reminded the audience, “What you know about your
property is a part of its value.”
Robert Longenbaugh is a groundwater consultant and former professor and
state engineer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His talk was titled, groundwater in
the South Platte Basin – What a tangled web the courts and legislature have
woven. Longenbaugh said Colorado has the most complex water law in the world
and it’s a mess. Like many areas of the west water disputes were often settled
with firearms. Colorado seemed to have a large number of such settlements and
over the years the tinkering with water law raged unabated. If I understood
him, there are at least seven categories of groundwater in Colorado. I only
remember three: tributary, non-tributary and not non-tributary.
Longenbaugh said the Rio Grande River Basin is similar to the San Joaquin
Valley in geology. He said the South Platte River was never perennial until
irrigation. Now it flows year round. He ended his talk with this advice, “Be
careful what you ask for, especially when it comes to water law.”
Ted Johnson, Chief Hydrologist for the Water Replenishment
District of Southern California spoke about overdraft in the LA Basin – Problem
solved? It was interesting to learn the Los Angeles Basin had a myriad of
artesian wells. By 1950 development lead to so much pumping that not only did
the artesian wells stop flowing, the sea was intruding into groundwater along
the coast. There is a principle known as “tragedy of commons” wherein people
sharing a resource deplete said resource to their own determent.
In an effort to avoid a tragedy of commons AB2908 was passed in 1955
directing the formation of water districts. By 1965 the LA Basin was
adjudicated, sea water was kept back by well injection and spreading ponds were
developed to recharge the aquifer. There are 2,000 acres in Pico Riviera for
recharge. Johnson’s district recharges 126,000 acre feet per year; about a
third from rainfall, a third from recycled waste water and a third from
imports. In the LA Basin there is still 40,000 a/f of adjudicated water that
has never been pumped. The increased cost and decreasing reliability of
imported water is creating a greater demand on not just the 40,000 a/f of
un-pumped water but also the waste and recycled water. Johnson said there is a
Water Independence Now program underway with the goal to be free of imported
water by 2020. He said will cost $200 million but the return on investment schedule
makes it pencil out.
Morgan had the saddest tale of the forum. Morgan is the Groundwater
Department Manager, United Water Conservation District in Santa Paula,
California. The area has the Santa Clara River to supply surface water, but
that also brings constituents from neighboring Los Angeles County. There is
also steelhead fish in the river and seawater intrusion along the coast. The
Vern Freeman Weir allows for a 144,000 a/f diversion but that rarely happens as
there isn’t usually that much water in the river. One bright spot is the UWCD
spreading pond – it can recharge one a/f per hour.
Seawater intrusion is a big problem. There are submarine canyons that
butt up against the aquifer and attempts to block the seawater move it south
along the coast, not out to sea. What diversions allowed are being curtailed by
ESA lawsuits from Indian Tribes and enviro groups. There is a 20 year old fish
ramp on the Freeman Diversion that NMFS has ruled completely inadequate. NMFS
wants a new, $50 million ramp to replace it. Morgan expects the area will be
adjudicated. There was only one follow up question on fracking.
Hendrix moderated the last panel of the forum titled, Groundwater
Management: What’s Next? As the day wound down the speakers became even more
concrete and concise in their choice of words. Attorney Scott Slater was
supposed to be the first speaker but his colleague Brad Herrema filled
in. Herrema is with the Santa Barbara firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber &
Schreck. The topic was, overdraft, who can put the brakes on?
Herrema explained a safe yield of groundwater is when extraction takes
place without subsidence or water quality decline. He said there could be a
temporary surplus that might free up room for storage or other factors that
would move water from one area to a more desirable area.
He asked the question – how does one slowdown overdraft? He gave the
following considerations: economic, regulatory, adjudication and undesirable
impacts. Economic slowdowns don’t usually happen as witnessed by permanent
crops of a higher value being grown to support the increased expenses from
stressed aquifers. Undesirable impacts haven’t slowed down pumping. The Valley
has already seen subsidence of almost 30 feet in some areas. Regulation depends
on political will and right now the change in property rights required to
enable further government shot calling is in the works.
Finally, adjudication can take 20-years and is very expensive. A judge, who
might not have the best knowledge decides who can use how much groundwater.
“As one of the lawyers in my offices says, ‘When the guy puts on the black
moo-moo nobody knows what he’s going to decide’,” said Herrema.
Herrema offered another solution, something he called “friendly
adjudication.” He explained this is self-regulation by agreement enforceable by
the court. But with limitation on what the court can do and provides a market
solution. The downside is a lack of trust may prevent the necessary
participation by stakeholders and that needs to be met with education and
Tim Quinn, CEO ACWA and former Met WD manager spoke on, what legislation may in the
Sacramento Pipeline? Quinn did not use a power point, that’s points on to me.
Quinn’s first remark was the government can’t do anything worse to you than you
can do to yourself by ignoring groundwater issues. He said bad facts make bad
law and as an example cited the legislative moving of drinking water quality
regulations from the California Department of Health Services to DWR control.
He said the regulators are coming and be ready for more court cases.
“If adjudication is the ‘A’ word,” said Quinn, “Then fee is the ‘F’ word.”
He strongly advised any fees be local and avoid sending money to Sacramento. He
also rather boldly stated he’s not afraid of state control because he doesn’t
believe the state can handle it. He advised managing for long-term
sustainability and wanted folks to realize local groundwater issues won’t be
solved without better statewide infrastructure and improved Delta operations.
The panel’s last speaker was David Zoldoske, Director of the Center
for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno. He began by
pointing to the fact that we’re in the driest year on record. He asked if this
could be the third year of a 10-year drought. A 20-year drought? Tree rings
show California has experienced decades’ long droughts. He asked if legislation
will soon require a 25-year water sustainability plan for permanent crops
similar to urban development requirements. He sees more fallowing to provide
water for permanent crops in the future.
Also in the near future Zoldoske believes farms will be managed in real
time by computer monitoring. He said energy, soil moisture, nutrient needs will
all become much more efficiently managed to stay competitive. Zoldoske ended by
saying either ag takes the lead in groundwater management or someone else will.
One of the concerns about friendly adjudication echoed that of the Kansas
farmers’ resistance to IGUCAs. Would friendly adjudication open up
opportunities for third party involvement? Herrema said regular adjudication is
often about whom can get the best attorney and that includes third parties.
However, a friendly adjudication can exclude all but the water rights holders.
Quinn said not to rule out adjudication although he doesn’t think it would work
in the San Joaquin Valley, it did work out well in Orange County.
Hendrix summed up the forum with the closing remark, “Where we go from
here, is up to us.”
Labels: Andrew Stone, Dave Orth, Derrik Williams, Dick Moss, Don Wright, Greg Zlotnick, Groundwater Forum Speaks Volumes on Reality of Over Draft Problems, Paul Hendrix