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State water board addresses critical overdraft of 6 California groundwater basins

The Kern groundwater basin is one of the half dozen in the state identified as "inadequate" by the California Department of Water Resources.
Water in Kern
Posted at 7:59 PM, Mar 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-03 00:27:50-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — On Thursday, the California Department of Water Resources released a map identifying 12 California groundwater basins that are critically overdrafted. 6 of the basins were deemed approved, but the remaining 6, including the one in Kern County, have been deemed inadequate.

Now, the state water board is stepping in to address the issue. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, the state is required to intervene and determine if the DWR's plans will help the basins achieve overall sustainability goals.

Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management Paul Gosselin says plans can be changed over a period of time.

"Plan approval does not mean that we are not expecting plans to adapt and change over time. No plan is probably going to look the same in 2040 and 2042 as it does today. That's for a variety of reasons. Land use, water supplies, and climate is going to change. Water does not stay within political boundaries or basin boundaries, so one basin's plan cannot preclude an adjoining basin from achieving their goals," said Gosselin.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs), like the Kern River GSA locally, to develop and implement the plans of the DWR. These plans determine whether a basin is approved or inadequate, and are designed to achieve "groundwater reliability" within 20 years.

Gosselin explains how these agencies determine whether a groundwater basin is approved or inadequate.

"The ones that were approved, they did broaden their view and covered the beneficial uses of groundwater. They established the criteria for water levels consistent with the law and regulations, and a framework if there was potential for impacts in the future," said Gosselin. "Establishing a framework to mitigate that."

Land subsidence, water quality, and interconnected surface water are other elements that the DWR looks for when recommending approval. However, the DWR says the GSAs that oversee the basins deemed inadequate did not analyze and justify continued groundwater level declines and land subsidence.

"There were some cases where not all uses of groundwater were analyzed and identified. There was oftentimes just a statistical analysis or a methodology to determine minimum thresholds, but no linkage to what that means to groundwater uses and users," explained Gosselin, "or that there was going to be impacts to groundwater uses and users without any justifications to why that would not be undesirable or a means of actually mitigating that."

Natalie Stork with the California Water Resources Control Board says the 6 basins deemed inadequate will be reviewed by the state, who will then decide whether to move forward with a public hearing and whether to put the basin on probation.

"The hearing is an open and transparent process where people will be able to provide public comment to the board. If the board puts the basin on probation, then the board will focus on collecting the information it needs in case it need to develop and implement its own plans to manage the basin," said Stork.

In response to these groundwater decisions, the California Farm Bureau released a statement reading, in part:

Our groundwater supplies are critical for California farmers, including vegetable, fruit, nut, and dairy producers, who account for much of America's food supply. It is important that California carefully consider solutions that protect both our aquifers and our food production.

The DWR says that state intervention and oversight are critical to making sure these basins succeed in achieving sustainable groundwater conditions. The ultimate goal is to have all the basins return to local management with a clear path on how to achieve sustainability within 20 years.