In September of 2014, Governor Brown signed legislation mandating that local agencies, across the State of California, create Sustainable Groundwater Management Plans. How did this happen? Well, all the wishing, hoping and even praying by farmers wasn’t enough to gather the storm clouds needed to end California’s four-year drought.
This trifecta of Bills signed by the Governor (AB 1739, SB 1168, and SB 1319) confers substantial authority on local “agencies” to take jurisdiction over groundwater, including: the potential to limit extractions, establish allocations, and require registration and reporting of groundwater use. By June 30, 2017 all medium and high-priority groundwater basins must have identified a local agency to take jurisdiction, and have in place an established and approved governance structure. With the exception of Alexander Valley, the Sonoma County Watershed Basins are currently classified as medium-priority by the State Water Board (Water Board). However, the Water Board is in the process of re-prioritizing basins, which could result in an elevated status for Russian River basins and additional restrictions on what is considered reasonable use of groundwater.
In a 2012 report to the Water Board, staff stated that “All water use must be reasonable and beneficial regardless of the type of underlying water right. No one has an enforceable property interest in the unreasonable use of water.” (The Reasonable Use Doctrine & Agricultural Water Use Efficiency, SWRCB)
In order to have input into how groundwater is managed, all of the farming community needs to collectively consider the best way to participate in groundwater management efforts. Currently, it is unclear not only how local agencies will be structured, but also how they will exercise their authority and how groundwater plans will be developed that are both achievable and reasonable. What is clear is that considerable stakeholder engagement will be critical to the success of any groundwater management effort and is paramount to agriculture’s continued access to groundwater supply.
Within the last month, the State Water Board gave additional urgency to our need to pay attention to this issue when they shared that if local agencies aren’t formed for the purpose of managing groundwater, the Water Board will take jurisdiction and manage groundwater for us. State Water Board staff was unabashed at stating that the program they develop will, in all likelihood, be more restrictive and more expensive.
There are many individuals in our community, including our former FB President, Tito Sasaki, who is continuing to track and work on efforts to ensure that agriculture has a strong voice in developing local Groundwater Management Plans. One effort worthy of our consideration is the potential formation of an irrigation district that influences policies as they relate to specific uses. Agriculture needs to keep an open mind about forming a district, and be prepared to support such a collaborative process that puts some of the decision making in managing groundwater in the hands of the farmer.
Without your input, it is difficult to envision how we will be able to cost-effectively and equitably manage groundwater, as well as develop the public outreach required at the outset to make any groundwater sustainability plan process succeed. Your ongoing voice will be needed to resolve potential groundwater disputes, protect vested water rights, and implement an appropriate management structure that is responsive to local interests.