By Deb Murphy
The handful of growers on 3,000 to 4,000 acres of alfalfa in the Hammil, Benton and Chalfant areas aren’t anti-groundwater sustainability. What they are trying to avoid is the cost and complexity of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed last fall. All they have to do is convince the state they’re not part of the Owens Valley Groundwater Basin.
The Act requires all basins designated as high- or medium-priority to develop sustainability plans over the next 20 years. Fees could also be required to develop and manage the plans that may include monitoring devices on wells.
The Tri-Valley Groundwater Management District inherited all of the requirements of the legislation because it is considered part of the Owens Valley Groundwater Basin, designated medium-priority by the Department of Water Resources. The part of the basin under land owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is exempt from the law’s requirements by virtue of the Long Term Water Agreement. According to Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington, the agreement “set the bar higher than the state legislation.”
But that doesn’t exempt other portions of the basin from developing and paying for the sustainability plans. Farmers in the Central Valley will have to carry the cost of the legislation, but at least the burden would be divided among many more ag operations than the half-dozen in Hammil.
“If we can prove we’re separate from the Owens basin, we could be classified a low-priority basin and not be subject to the state legislation,” said District board member and Hammil valley grower Dave Doonan. “A low-priority designation takes the legislative pressure off.
“Our wells have dropped 5-6 feet,” he said. “But we’re in good shape compared to the central Valley. Their wells are down 500-700 feet. There are just too many straws in the bowl.”
The district has been working with Mono County Assistant County Counsel Stacey Simon and is ahead of the curve compared to the state. “It’s a matter of redrawing the boundaries,” said Simon. The legislation includes general requirements for revising basin boundaries, but specifics and decision-makers are not in place, as yet. That layer of the regulations should be in place early next year. Doonan assumes the process is being fast tracked with current poor run-off predictions for 2014-15.
According to Simon, groundwater basins were drawn in the 1970s. “The (current) legislation recognizes that they may not make sense today, she said. Hydrologically, it may make more sense to identify the Tri Valley basin as separate from the Owens Valley Basin.
Even if Tri-Valley is successful in, figuratively, seceding from Owens Valley, there’s no absolute guarantee, said Simon, it will be identified as low-priority. There are seven specific criteria, including population, growth, irrigated acreage with the final, eighth, criteria: “any other information determined to be relevant by the (Water Resources) Department.”
Re-drawing boundaries and a low-priority basin designation may take one kind of pressure off Tri Valley, but it could also add another kind of pressure.
Central Valley reports from last summer, the third consecutive year of drought conditions, prove the adage “water flows to money.” Agricultural water districts and private land owners are buying and selling water at prices ranging into the thousands of dollars, even holding auctions to sell to the highest bidder. The Madera irrigation District sold 3,200 acre-feet for a $7 million price tag; all the water went to farms according to an Associated Press report. The Buena Vista Water Storage District sold 12,000 acre-feet for $13.5 million. The “extra water” came from a century-old right to use Kern River flows, the all-important pre-1914 water rights.
Stanislaus County’s Del Puerto Water District board has allocated funds to purchase 26,000 acre-feet over the next two years, just to keep the district’s almond trees alive. The source of the water is 14 wells from two private land owners in neighboring Merced County.
While the state was involved in water banking and brokering in the last drought, a lawsuit alleging violation of the California Environmental Quality Act was successful in putting an end to California involvement in water sales.
The Department of Water Resources has a hands-off approach to current transactions.
California involvement in water banking, storing water in groundwater basins in wet years for use in dry years, has a questionable past. In the 1980s, Water Resources allocated $74 million for a 20,000-acre Kern Water Bank south of Bakersfield. By the mid-1990s, the department was out of funds and the water bank incomplete. The solution, arrived at behind closed doors and referred to as the Monterey Agreement, turned the operation of the Kern Water Bank over to private interests, specifically Stewart Resnick’s Paramount Farms, a subsidiary of Resnick’s Roll Global. Paramount Farms grows pistachios, almonds and pomegranates on 120,000 acres in the Central Valley.
According to a July 2014 article in The New York Times, the conversion of Central Valley acreage from annual to tree crops, added to three consecutive years of drought, has drawn down the Kern bank by roughly half. Neighboring districts have experienced water shortages requiring new and deeper wells.
Nearly 20 years of litigation was partially resolved just last fall when a Sacramento Superior Court ruled that the Kern Water Bank can continue operating as it has in the past, but Water Resources will be required to do a new environmental review on the impact of the water bank operations.