On Friday morning, the Lockeford Plant Materials Center was humming with activity. Farmers, water managers, high school students and others were all at the center, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, for a groundwater meeting hosted by the Lower Mokelumne River Watershed Stewardship Steering Committee.

Despite their varied backgrounds, they all had the same goal: Learning about local groundwater issues and how they could help.

From 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., attendees were treated to a panel of experts who led a crash course on groundwater in the Mokelumne River watershed, new state mandates in groundwater management, and possible solutions to help revive a shrinking groundwater basin.

An overview of the issues

The meeting opened with Jane Wagner-Tyack, a legislative consultant on water issues for the League of Women Voters of California and public information consultant on water to San Joaquin County.

She presented “Unseen Water: A Layperson’s Overview of Groundwater Matters in San Joaquin County.”

Wagner-Tyack is no stranger to water issues in the state — she wrote the script for “Over Troubled Waters,” an award-winning documentary produced by Restore the Delta — and as a layperson herself, she took on the task of getting attendees from a mix of backgrounds up to speed on local groundwater.

The first thing she emphasized is that splitting California’s water into small categories is a recipe for trouble.

“This system is one system. It’s not surface water on one hand, groundwater on the other. They all work together,” she said.

Take streams, for example — they’re surface water. But in most cases, the bottom of a stream bed is lower than the top of the water table. Water seeps from the water table into the stream as it travels, along with rain and snowmelt adding to its flow.

In streams where the water table has dropped significantly, the water isn’t seeping in anymore. Instead, it’s soaking into the ground — what’s known as a “losing stream.”

“The San Joaquin River is a losing stream for about a hundred miles of its length,” Wagner-Tyack said.

And the Sacramento River is becoming one as more water is transferred down to Southern California.

For both rivers, the water is still there, but losing streams aren’t sustainable in the long-term.

“If a stream is a losing stream, you don’t have a healthy system,” she said.

The Mokelumne hasn’t faced that issue yet, but that doesn’t mean Lodi doesn’t face water problems. The Mokelumne’s surface water is overallocated, and when there isn’t enough to go around, all the agencies that depend on the river turn to groundwater.

“We use a lot of groundwater,” Wagner-Tyack said.

That’s not sustainable, either. As water is pumped out of the ground in the Central Valley, it’s actually sinking, Wagner-Tyack said — sometimes several feet. In Kern County, the groundwater table actually dropped below one of their canal systems, and the canals no longer carry water well because of the ground subsiding beneath them.

The Eastern San Joaquin Groundwater Basin — where Lodi is located — isn’t having the same issues. Yet.

“We’re a critically overdrafted basin,” Wagner-Tyack said.

And that’s a problem, because the state of California has passed down a mandate known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Passed in 2014, SGMA requires local water agencies to form groundwater sustainability agencies and develop plans to address shrinking stores of groundwater. In the Eastern San Joaquin Groundwater Basin, there are currently 17 GSAs — one for each water district — although Woodbridge Irrigation District is seeking to reverse that status.

Those 17 GSAs all have to work together, not separately, to develop a single plan to address the basin’s overdrafted status.

“Groundwater pays no attention at all to political boundaries,” Wagner-Tyack said.

Their plan has to manage groundwater in a way that’s sustainable, without causing “undesirable results” like chronic lowering of groundwater tables, seawater intrusion, reduction of stored water, and more. If they don’t come up with a plan that the state finds acceptable, California will take over, implement their own plan, and charge the GSAs to run it.

A few of the options on the table, according to Wagner-Tyack: capturing more stormwater during wet years, reducing overall water use, recharging groundwater, and repairing existing water infrastructure to reduce waste.

She closed her presentation by talking about Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics. Ostrom and her team had studied how communities around the world share resources from grazing land and irrigation waters to forests and fisheries. They documented how people at the local level can create successful partnerships to manage communal resources in a way that’s fair for everyone.

California has told local agencies they must act, she said, but they have the freedom to create a plan that works for everyone, if they can cooperate.

A legal summary of where things stand in S.J. County

Attorney Jennifer Spaletta has represented agencies and individuals in defending water rights with the State Water Resources Board, as well as in water quality permitting matters and water and environmental law issues. From a farming family in Tulare County, she first became interested in water issues as a high school senior in the 1991.

On Friday, Spaletta gave the audience a crash course in the legal issues surrounding the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the water rights on the Mokelumne.

California is actually the last western state to put a groundwater management mandate in place, she said. And it’s given high-priority basins like East San Joaquin until 2020 to have a plan in place, or the state will take over.

But she and her clients don’t want it to get that far. They’d rather have the state stay out of their business as much as possible, she said. That’s one reason why it’s so important for the GSAs in the Eastern San Joaquin Groundwater Basin to work together.

The other reason is that the state has already set a precedent of sending water agencies to adjudication if they can’t work together on shared resources.

It hasn’t happened yet in the Central Valley.

“We’re too big,” Spaletta said.

Adjudication even for small areas can take years and millions of dollars before a judge decides water regulations for the agencies in question. In the Central Valley, it could be a nightmare.

“Groundwater issues are best solved by local people like all of you who get involved and contribute to the conversation and the solution,” Spaletta said.

The good news is, a plan doesn’t have to be perfect right away. Sustainable can mean avoiding declining groundwater levels and the associated issues, recharging the basin, or simply — at least at first — slowing the groundwater table’s decline to manageable levels. It’s up to the local GSAs — and the people they represent — to decide which course they want to take.

“Exactly what that means for our sub-basin is currently being debated,” Spaletta said.

The other good news is that, at least in the Lower Mokelumne, the river is not closely connected to our groundwater. That means that using surface water is a viable alternative to using groundwater.

Local residents will soon have a chance to get involved in the process, if they’re not already. The 16 local GSAs — including the City of Lodi and the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District — are required to submit their plans to the state on Jan. 31, 2020, which means that they must have the plans available for public review by this summer. While the Cosumnes sub-basin to the north is not deemed critically overdrafted, GSAs in the region north of Lodi will have to go through the same process next year.

Each plan must define sustainability goals, create measurable objectives, set a plan to meet with those objectives, and outline how each GSA and joint-powers authority will coordinate with neighbors, including monitoring and reporting.

Once those plans are accepted by the state, the GSAs will all have to work together to meet the goals they set.

“We essentially have 20 years,” Spaletta said. “Twenty years is a very short timeframe in the world of water.”

As part of the process, the state’s GSAs must collect and compile data on historic and current groundwater levels, water quality, interaction of ground and surface water, and historic and projected supply and demand. While agencies have kept most of this data already, it’s never been centralized or easily available.

“The upside of this is everyone is sharing this information for the first time ever in the Central Valley,” Spaletta said.

That’s good for water managers, and for the general public so they can see how their resources are being used.

While the East San Joaquin Groundwater Basin is deemed high priority, the county is actually better off than other places. The current groundwater overdraft in the basin is about 40,000 acre-feet per year, which seems like a lot. But the local sub-basin supports pumping of about 1.3 million acre-feet per year, so 40,000 acre-feet is really just a very large drop in a gargantuan bucket.

The local region has some wiggle-room, too, such as surface water rights that aren’t being fully utilized, Spaletta said.

“We kind of have it easy. It’s just a matter of rolling up our sleeves and doing the work,” she said.

The most likely plan for the joint-powers authority the 16 local GSAs have formed: No pumping restrictions at first, as the JPA tests and evaluates in-lieu recharge and direct recharge projects, with regular five-year updates to reevaluate, she said. Water rights on the Mokelumne will play a huge role, as will the ability of the GSAs to work together.

“We have to be extremely creative and pay attention to every week of every year in order to maximize our water supply,” Spaletta said.

How the JPA will pay for it all? That’s still up in the air, but any changes would have to go through the process set by Proposition 218.

The state has already released a proposed fee schedule for GSAs who can’t get their acts together: $300 per well per year, plus $10 per acre-foot if metered or $20 per acre-foot if unmetered. Those fees go up if the state puts a GSA on probation and implements its own plan.

All those fees could go to Sacramento rather than staying in San Joaquin County, Spaletta noted. It would be better to keep them here and put them to use, she said.

“We want to design projects that cost less than this,” she said.

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