Groundwater Forum was Part of a Sobering Reality

Groundwater Forum was Part of a Sobering Reality

December 8, 2013

Groundwater Forum Speaks Volumes on 

Reality of Over Draft Problems
By Don A. Wright, Special Correspondent

The American Groundwater Trust presented a forum titled “San Joaquin Valley Groundwater Overdraft” at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California on Monday, November 18, 2013. More than 250 people attended the day-long event. There was a good representation of water community leaders; both on the four panels and in the audience. The presentation pretty much stayed on schedule. The speakers, with one exception we’ll get to later, were knowledgeable and kept the audience’s attention. No one droned on too long.

Concerned Growers Listen to the Speakers
That and free range coffee, fruit and snacks kept the butt fatigue at a minimum. In other words folks stayed seated and paid attention. While no silver bullet emerged to cure the Valley’s groundwater woes a lot of information was shared from a variety of perspectives. Certainly the Tulare Basin and Southern San Joaquin Valley has some major challenges with both surface and groundwater, the forum showed things could be much worse. I believe the overall arc of the forum could be summed up as – Unity is vital. The region will have to work together and everyone will have to become engaged. That’s not a new concept but rather one that has served groups of people facing big obstacles well.


The presentation began with Paul Hendrix, General Manager of Tulare Irrigation District welcoming everyone and introducing Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel. Vander Poel in turn welcomed everyone and said Tulare County will continue to stand by agriculture. Vander Poel looks young; he’s a good speaker and understands the bedrock importance of ag to the Valley’s economy.

American Groundwater Trust’s Executive Director Andrew Stone made some remarks in what I took to be a British accent (I know we’re the ones with the accent.) Stone said AGT has the goal of, “. . . getting the truth out.” He said too often science can be trumped by politics. He quoted Article X, Section Two of the State Constitution that declares water must be used in a beneficial manner. Stone, like almost all the speakers used power point slides. One interesting crowd pleaser was the cover of a Delta Smelt cookbook.

First Panel

Dave Orth
The first panel was titled, “Groundwater Conditions: Then and Now in the Valley” and was moderated by Kings River Conservation District General Manager Dave Orth. Orth said groundwater management has been statutorily under local control in California, but overdraft status is the new scorecard for efficiency. The increased demand is outpacing surface supplies and data collection is becoming a priority for the regulators.

Claudia Faunt, Hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Service spoke about the history of groundwater in the Central Valley. She pointed out 25 percent of the United States food supply is grown here in the Valley. While there might be climate change she said there has always been climate variability in the Valley. Faunt thinks the San Joaquin Valley is the poster child for conjunctive use. She talked about subsidence and the relationship between draught, over-drafting and Corcoran clay. Something I didn’t know, 20-percent of the Valley’s pumping is M&I.

Dick Moss
Dick Moss, Provost & Pritchard spoke next about supplies and said there are 3 million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley. The Tulare Basin is a closed region with little outflow during normal years. The Valley uses 12 million a/f annually. On an average year the Kings River produces 1.15 million a/f, the Kaweah River 404,000 a/f, the Tule River 136,000 a/f and the Kern River 714,000 a/f. State Water Project supplies 1.2 million a/f, the federal Central Valley Project supplies 2.7 million a/f.

The rest of South Valley supplies come from groundwater pumping. Due to biological opinions the SWP has lost 240,000 a/f, the CVP 325,000 a/f with San Joaquin River restoration posed to make matters worse. Up until the 1920s stream diversion was the main source of irrigation water. Then efficient pumps were made affordable. This caused a drastic decrease in groundwater and resulted in the SWP and the CVP. Things were rolling along pretty good until the late 1980s when Congressman George Miller pushed the CVP Improvement Act through congress. This killed the Mid Valley Canal; an additional Delta feed conveyance that would have serviced the center of the Valley.

Moss said there currently isn’t enough storage and new reservoirs are expensive. As supplies tighten and groundwater overdraft increases the options may include increased fallowing to preserve permanent crops, more urban conservation and more control over groundwater.

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Greg Zlotnick, San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority spoke about the State Water Resources Control Board. Zlotnick said the idea of unregulated groundwater is a myth. Most groundwater is under some form of local control. Recently the Delta Stewardship Council made the claim that groundwater overdraft is an impediment to the coequal goals of habitat and supply. This could pave the way for the State Board to take over groundwater management if the overdraft situation continues to worsen. And right now says Zlotnick, Southern San Joaquin Valley pumping is unstainable and is causing overdraft.

The State Board’s authority over groundwater is limited by Water Code Section 1200 that states the Board only has jurisdiction over underground streams. But, the State Board has other options. Zlotnick said a court ruling in 1971 (still under appeal) tied groundwater to the Scott River.

“We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities,” read a slide. Zlotnick asked, “Who will be the bad cop and who will be the good?” I think he seemed to feel it would be better to have the local folks be the bad cop, because it would still be better than what Sacramento could do.

Derrik Williams, president of Hydro Metrics talked about groundwater modeling and its role in setting policy. Williams started out by saying good groundwater modeling is integral to good policy. Stakeholder involvement is necessary and the model’s formulation starts with objectives. Models provide a catalyst for action; developing acceptance and consensus. The model should assess current and future conditions by helping to implement the variables of unseen and unintended consequences.

Williams won my heart when he said, “If you ask your modeler a question and the response is, ‘It’s very complicated’ – Fire him!” The modeler must be more than a number cruncher. He said some things to look for in a model are: stakeholder input, integration with demand side analysis and the economic function.


 Orth said when he hears interest about groundwater coming from Sacramento he harbors great concern. When he hears interest about groundwater coming from growers he has hope.

The first questioner took the microphone and proceeded to address the audience about population growth and it was inappropriate and not germane to the topic. I though Orth handled it well by refocusing the rant as a question about population as a groundwater stressor. Zlotnick responded by reiterating a consequence of finite supplies will be an increase in urban conservation.

Moss said he expects more litigation against urban development over water supplies and growers may have to stop placing permanent crops in areas without surface supplies. Zlotnick added the purpose of storage has changed from flood control and supply to environmental usage. The panelists all agreed the local counties have to become partners in preventing further groundwater overdraft. “Counties have the land use police powers,” said Zlotnick.

Second Panel

Mark Larsen, General Manager of Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District moderated the next panel titled, “Groundwater Conditions: Impacts We Can’t Hide.”

The first speaker was Chase Hurley, GM of San Luis Canal Company who spoke about the serious subsidence taking place in Merced and Madera Counties along the Chowchilla Bypass. The land had been grazed and some row crops planted for decades. New landowners punched deep wells through the Corcoran clay layer and noticed some well head rising up a couple feet from the ground. The land has subsided almost two feet in less than three years.

The subsidence threatens the Bypass which in turn threatens flooding in the area. The SJR restoration could also be threatened as the Bypass is a possible route for salmon. Some solutions and efforts are underway to arrest the subsidence. The landowners are willing to work to correct the situation and plans to keep wells above 300 feet should help. Neighbors are sharing water and the option of annexing the land into Madera Irrigation District is being considered. There is also the possibility of a new diversion on the SJR to help provide recharge.

Jason Gianquinto, GM of Semitropic WSD talked about planning for improved groundwater management in Kern County. Gianquinto said when he’s asked about groundwater his reply is, “I’m on top of it.” He said most of the Valley portion of Kern County is in districts served by the SWP, CVP or Kern River supplies. If I heard correctly he said this surface supply totals an average of almost 2 million a/f. In 1991 the state project delivered zero a/f and that sparked the groundwater banking development. Kern County’s farm gate crop value was $6.2 billion in 2012. It takes 3-4 million a/f to water the 887,000 acres of farmland, with 54 percent of that land in permanent crops. Permanent crops show a return on investment many, many times that of other crops and Kern growers have come together to work on the area’s groundwater conditions. Thirty-one entities have gathered to develop principles of dealing with ground and surface water in a regional manner. Fifteen of those entities are funding the work to complete the Kern County Water Management Plan.

Peter Leffler is an Associate Hydrologist with Fugro Consultants and spoke about the pending oversight of groundwater in the Paso Robles Basin. Two-thirds of the water pumped has been going to ag use but M&I usage is increasing. Ag has been declining as alfalfa and other high usage crops are being replaced with grape vineyards for wineries. An urban/business corridor has formed around the north/south High Way 46 route. This increased density and groundwater usage has caused a 70 feet drop in groundwater levels. A 2010 study found the basin’s ability to recharge has been maxed out and San Luis Obispo County declared the area a Level Severity III. The county can control land use and building permits but doesn’t have a direct control of pumping.

Folks in the Paso Robles Basin are trying to form a regional water district that can help ensure any new development is water neutral and banking can be developed. This past August the Board of Supervisors passed an urgency ordinance. A moratorium on new ag development that isn’t water neutral is also in effect. There are two groups trying to form a water district. One group, supported by established farming interests wants a form of water district governance where the votes are weighed by acreage owned. The other group wants a form of irrigation district type governance with one man one vote counted. Leffler said, being political, the county is courting both factions.



Larsen advised those looking for solutions to remember the importance of interaction with landowners. Don Mills of Kings County asked Hurley how the government is being portrayed to the landowners. Hurley said whenever possible he brings landowners to meeting with government agencies. He said the bureaucrats and elected representatives pay a lot more attention and the landowners sit up straight and stay alert. It does both sides good to hear from each other. Someone pointed out when land is fallowed nitrogen removal also stops. Larsen said the City of Visalia is charging a fee to convert farmland to urban areas with the revenues used to at least partially offset the loss of recharge and mitigate other matters that arise when ag land is converted.



Lunch was next and the food was very good; beef, chicken steamed vegetables. There was some good bread with its own dipping sauce. I asked the server what kind of sauce it was and she said, “It’s bread sauce.” I didn’t push it. But the sauce did taste good. As soon as most folks had distended their abdomens a bit an almost palpable loss of energy settled over the sated congregation. That only made matters worse for the special guest speaker. State Senator Andy Vidak and Assemblyman Jim Patterson were slated to speak on overdraft in the Valley but Vidak was ill and couldn’t attend. That left things in Patterson’s hands or larynx as it were.


Patterson began his talk by stating he was a freshman legislature who is trying to learn. I know I learned a lot from what followed – the number one lesson being – if you don’t know what you’re talking about, keep it brief. The recurring phrase, “We’ve got to . . .” was used many times; i.e. we’ve got turn on the pumps, we’ve got to pass a water bond with storage, we’ve got to modernize our infrastructure and so on. Unfortunately there wasn’t any “How to” mentioned. And there were a couple of statements that had a bizarre ring to my ears.

Patterson said environmental policy was putting money in the bank accounts of the regulatory agencies (I didn’t realize the agencies had bank accounts) and he said, “The Republicans in Sacramento will be the very last to know about what will be in the water bond,” the very last to know? That’s a bit chilling. He closed by asking everyone to help restore Republicans to power in Sacramento.

Third Panel


Stone moderated the third panel titled, “Groundwater Management: How Are Others Taking on the Issues?


Dr. Bridget Scanlon, Senior Research Scientist, Bureau of Economic Geology in Austin Texas was the first to speak and her subject was, coming to terms with overdraft in Texas. In a charming Irish lilt Scanlon presented some fairly bleak findings and comparisons of the Texas high plans and the Southern San Joaquin Valley. Be glad the Valley’s aquifer isn’t fossil. The aquifer under primarily the Texas Panhandle is the Ogallala and whatever recharge that takes place is slow and minute as the land in mostly clay. Looking on the bright side Scanlon pointed out there are no problems with endangered fish as there are no rivers to speak of in the area.


Scanlon spoke about using satellites to monitor changes in the topography. The State of Texas has models for every aquifer in the state. There is some volunteer metering by landowners but so far the data is unclear. There is also a problem with salt build up.

Scanlon also spoke about “fracking” for oil and gas development. It takes water, but not so much as one would think. There are two large reserves or plays in Texas. One under Fort Worth known as the Bennett Play and over towards Houston there is the Eagle Ford Play. To fully develop the Bennett Play would only require 160,000 a/f. And, there is no harm to aquifers or wells from fracking. There have always been, even before any oil exploration, a number of areas where methane seeps into the groundwater and it will ignite at the faucet. That has nothing to do with fracking.

If you follow the Ogallala Aquifer to the north you’ll come to Kansas. The next speaker Burke Griggs is the Assistant Attorney General of Kansas and also the Consulting Professor at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University. Griggs spoke about dealing with overdraft in the Ogallala Aquifer – the Kansas approach. Griggs said surface water counts for only five percent of usage in Kansas. The western portion of the state has experienced the most depletion and recharge is only one to two percent. Also looking on the bright side he said the USBR isn’t a problem because there are no suitable places for reservoirs. Kansas water law doesn’t differentiate between surface and groundwater. If there is any change in the use of water, the new use becomes junior to the other uses in the area.

Kansas has groundwater management districts and a State Chief Engineer who approves the district rules and regulations. The state has also come up with a program for groundwater management that not only isn’t popular with stakeholders, but also creates a sing-song acronym. The Intensive Groundwater Use Control Area or IGUCA was meant to help with the serious over-appropriation of supplies. Although the IGUCA membership is nil self-compliance by Kansas growers is above 90 percent. No one wants to involve the state because water rights in Kansas are property rights, not just rights to usage. Griggs said this creates some sticky political, regulatory and legal consequences.

For this reason and fear of outside litigant involvement landowners have rejected IGUCA and have developed local plans often far more strict and stringent than any the state might have devised. Griggs told about one group that wanted to make non-compliance a felony. He had to explain to them that would be putting their neighbors in prison, not the county jail, and they calmed down.

An idea that has been presented in the past is the Kansas Aqueduct. It would bring 1.3 to 3.4 million a/f of water from the Missouri River in the northeast, 400 miles uphill over a 3,000 feet elevation difference to the high plains in the northwest portion of the state. It would take one or two nuclear power plants to supply the energy needed to move that water and of course the project is very expensive and a hard sell.


So, Griggs said local control is the best way to manage groundwater. He said the local political culture if far more important than whatever legal regime is in place. He reminded the audience, “What you know about your property is a part of its value.”


Robert Longenbaugh is a groundwater consultant and former professor and state engineer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His talk was titled, groundwater in the South Platte Basin – What a tangled web the courts and legislature have woven. Longenbaugh said Colorado has the most complex water law in the world and it’s a mess. Like many areas of the west water disputes were often settled with firearms. Colorado seemed to have a large number of such settlements and over the years the tinkering with water law raged unabated. If I understood him, there are at least seven categories of groundwater in Colorado. I only remember three: tributary, non-tributary and not non-tributary.


Longenbaugh said the Rio Grande River Basin is similar to the San Joaquin Valley in geology. He said the South Platte River was never perennial until irrigation. Now it flows year round. He ended his talk with this advice, “Be careful what you ask for, especially when it comes to water law.”


Ted Johnson, Chief Hydrologist for the Water Replenishment District of Southern California spoke about overdraft in the LA Basin – Problem solved? It was interesting to learn the Los Angeles Basin had a myriad of artesian wells. By 1950 development lead to so much pumping that not only did the artesian wells stop flowing, the sea was intruding into groundwater along the coast. There is a principle known as “tragedy of commons” wherein people sharing a resource deplete said resource to their own determent.

In an effort to avoid a tragedy of commons AB2908 was passed in 1955 directing the formation of water districts. By 1965 the LA Basin was adjudicated, sea water was kept back by well injection and spreading ponds were developed to recharge the aquifer. There are 2,000 acres in Pico Riviera for recharge. Johnson’s district recharges 126,000 acre feet per year; about a third from rainfall, a third from recycled waste water and a third from imports. In the LA Basin there is still 40,000 a/f of adjudicated water that has never been pumped. The increased cost and decreasing reliability of imported water is creating a greater demand on not just the 40,000 a/f of un-pumped water but also the waste and recycled water. Johnson said there is a Water Independence Now program underway with the goal to be free of imported water by 2020. He said will cost $200 million but the return on investment schedule makes it pencil out.

            Tony Morgan had the saddest tale of the forum. Morgan is the Groundwater Department Manager, United Water Conservation District in Santa Paula, California. The area has the Santa Clara River to supply surface water, but that also brings constituents from neighboring Los Angeles County. There is also steelhead fish in the river and seawater intrusion along the coast. The Vern Freeman Weir allows for a 144,000 a/f diversion but that rarely happens as there isn’t usually that much water in the river. One bright spot is the UWCD spreading pond – it can recharge one a/f per hour.

 Seawater intrusion is a big problem. There are submarine canyons that butt up against the aquifer and attempts to block the seawater move it south along the coast, not out to sea. What diversions allowed are being curtailed by ESA lawsuits from Indian Tribes and enviro groups. There is a 20 year old fish ramp on the Freeman Diversion that NMFS has ruled completely inadequate. NMFS wants a new, $50 million ramp to replace it. Morgan expects the area will be adjudicated. There was only one follow up question on fracking.


Panel Four

 Hendrix moderated the last panel of the forum titled, Groundwater Management: What’s Next? As the day wound down the speakers became even more concrete and concise in their choice of words. Attorney Scott Slater was supposed to be the first speaker but his colleague Brad Herrema filled in. Herrema is with the Santa Barbara firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck. The topic was, overdraft, who can put the brakes on?

Herrema explained a safe yield of groundwater is when extraction takes place without subsidence or water quality decline. He said there could be a temporary surplus that might free up room for storage or other factors that would move water from one area to a more desirable area.

He asked the question – how does one slowdown overdraft? He gave the following considerations: economic, regulatory, adjudication and undesirable impacts. Economic slowdowns don’t usually happen as witnessed by permanent crops of a higher value being grown to support the increased expenses from stressed aquifers. Undesirable impacts haven’t slowed down pumping. The Valley has already seen subsidence of almost 30 feet in some areas. Regulation depends on political will and right now the change in property rights required to enable further government shot calling is in the works.

Finally, adjudication can take 20-years and is very expensive. A judge, who might not have the best knowledge decides who can use how much groundwater.


“As one of the lawyers in my offices says, ‘When the guy puts on the black moo-moo nobody knows what he’s going to decide’,” said Herrema.


Herrema offered another solution, something he called “friendly adjudication.” He explained this is self-regulation by agreement enforceable by the court. But with limitation on what the court can do and provides a market solution. The downside is a lack of trust may prevent the necessary participation by stakeholders and that needs to be met with education and outreach.


Tim Quinn, CEO ACWA and former Met WD manager spoke on, what legislation may in the Sacramento Pipeline? Quinn did not use a power point, that’s points on to me. Quinn’s first remark was the government can’t do anything worse to you than you can do to yourself by ignoring groundwater issues. He said bad facts make bad law and as an example cited the legislative moving of drinking water quality regulations from the California Department of Health Services to DWR control. He said the regulators are coming and be ready for more court cases.

“If adjudication is the ‘A’ word,” said Quinn, “Then fee is the ‘F’ word.” He strongly advised any fees be local and avoid sending money to Sacramento. He also rather boldly stated he’s not afraid of state control because he doesn’t believe the state can handle it. He advised managing for long-term sustainability and wanted folks to realize local groundwater issues won’t be solved without better statewide infrastructure and improved Delta operations.

The panel’s last speaker was David Zoldoske, Director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno. He began by pointing to the fact that we’re in the driest year on record. He asked if this could be the third year of a 10-year drought. A 20-year drought? Tree rings show California has experienced decades’ long droughts. He asked if legislation will soon require a 25-year water sustainability plan for permanent crops similar to urban development requirements. He sees more fallowing to provide water for permanent crops in the future.

Also in the near future Zoldoske believes farms will be managed in real time by computer monitoring. He said energy, soil moisture, nutrient needs will all become much more efficiently managed to stay competitive. Zoldoske ended by saying either ag takes the lead in groundwater management or someone else will.


One of the concerns about friendly adjudication echoed that of the Kansas farmers’ resistance to IGUCAs. Would friendly adjudication open up opportunities for third party involvement? Herrema said regular adjudication is often about whom can get the best attorney and that includes third parties. However, a friendly adjudication can exclude all but the water rights holders. Quinn said not to rule out adjudication although he doesn’t think it would work in the San Joaquin Valley, it did work out well in Orange County.

Hendrix summed up the forum with the closing remark, “Where we go from here, is up to us.”

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