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A Bottom-Up Approach to Groundwater Sustainability

Lori Pottinger February 28, 2018
A wheat field receives water from a pumping system tapped into an irrigation canal in the southern region of the San Joaquin Valley off Herring Road near Bakersfield, California. Photo taken March 20, 2015. 

John Chacon / California Department of Water Resources

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires communities with ongoing groundwater deficits to bring their aquifers into balance in the coming years. This will be a difficult and complex process, but it’s also an opportunity to devise workable solutions at the community level. We talked to Eric Averett of the Rosedale–Rio Bravo Water Storage District about groundwater management innovations being tried in his Kern County district and lessons learned that might have wider application.

PPIC: What are the priority areas for addressing groundwater sustainability in your district?

Eric Averett: The most challenging area is managing and mitigating impacts associated with demand reduction. Rather than mandating that individual landowners reduce demand, our district has pursued a path that we think gives individuals greater flexibility. The idea is that every acre will be assigned a water budget based on what the district can provide or considers sustainable. If a landowner uses more than that amount, it triggers a water charge. The district will use those funds to develop water supply programs or purchase land from willing sellers to retire it from production. Either way, this system doesn’t take anything away from landowners’ ability to manage their own water, it just gives them more options.

Another important area we’re looking at is water trading within our district’s boundaries. We’ve implemented a pilot study that empowers landowners to act as buyers or sellers in managing their water resources. We think water trading will be an essential tool to getting aquifers into balance and maximizing the value of the resource. For example, during a drought, a small grower with row crops may find greater value in fallowing a field and selling the water. At the same time, a grower who may be short of water and facing the loss of a permanent crop may enter the market as a buyer. If we don’t find a way to create these buy/sell opportunities, we strand the asset.

A third area we’re working on is creating individual groundwater bank accounts for landowners. We have a number of landowners who’ve committed to make their land available for recharge in exchange for a portion of the recharged water being credited to their account. Alternatively, some landowners have acquired a source of water and asked the district to use it for recharge on their behalf. Both types of programs were tested successfully in 2017, and we look forward to expanding the concept.   Ultimately, we’re looking at ways the district can assist landowners in becoming sustainable and mitigating SGMA impacts.

PPIC: How are you handling the issue of dry wells?

EA:  During the most recent drought, we experienced a number of wells that went dry. Kern County’s groundwater levels can be very dynamic, in part because of the groundwater banking projects within the region. These projects pump out large volumes of water during droughts, causing the water table to drop a lot and fairly quickly. We’ve developed a unique mitigation program in partnership with the banking projects. We utilize a groundwater model to evaluate the well in question. If it’s determined that the well’s failure was due to water level impacts from the banking projects, we mitigate the impacts. Within 24 hours of the well going dry they’re connected into a temporary water supply. To date, we’ve spent more than $1 million replacing and repairing wells, or connecting people with dry wells to local service providers. The proof of success is that not one landowner has pursued legal remedies, and all have been satisfied with the results. We think it’s a good template for others to try and may be a model going into the groundwater sustainability planning process.

PPIC: What’s the big lesson from your district’s efforts?

EA In all of these areas, our goal is to have the district be a resource for sustainability, not a regulator. Each landowner is unique: some have thousands of acres, and the impacts on them may not be as great as for someone with a small parcel. A lot of smaller landowners may be unable to manage the fixed costs that will arise from implementing SGMA. We wanted to address the diversity in our district and not disadvantage any one user.

We’re emphasizing approaches that let growers decide what’s best for them—whether it’s helping them put unused water into a market or compensating them for using their land for recharge. Everyone in the district will have to live with the water budget we come up with, but we want to provide as many tools and options to get to sustainability as we can.

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