Valley Water Management May Be Putting Groundwater at Risk
The Central Valley Water Regional Quality Control Board has issued a Cease and Desist Order requiring Valley Water Management Co. (VWMC), an oil field wastewater disposal center, to either bring its McKittrick 1 and 1-3 Facility into compliance with water quality regulations or stop discharging wastewater at the facility.
“Valley Water provides a valuable service to the oil industry in Kern County, but discharges from the McKittrick facility must not put groundwater beneficial uses at risk,” said Patrick Pulupa, Executive Officer of the Central Valley Water Board. “With this Cease and Desist Order (CDO), the Board has said that if this facility cannot be brought into compliance with current regulations, discharges at the facility must cease.”
In California, water and oil are co-mingled in underground oil-bearing geologic formations, and both oil and water are brought to the surface during production. That water is called “produced water,” which is known to have naturally occurring contaminants like salinity, chloride, and boron that make the water unsuitable for human consumption or to irrigate agricultural crops.
VWMC disposes of poor-quality produced water from the South Belridge, Cymric, and McKittrick oil fields at the Facility. The Facility has 163 acres of unlined disposal ponds where, according to the company’s recent reporting, 2.8 million gallons of produced water are discharged each day.
In issuing the CDO, the Board found that the cumulative effect of disposing produced water at the facility over many decades has created a highly saline wastewater plume that is migrating to the northeast, where it threatens higher-quality groundwater designated as supporting municipal and agricultural uses.
The CDO requires VWMC to complete a full characterization of the nature and extent of wastewater impacts, an important step toward protecting the beneficial uses of groundwater. If VWMC cannot demonstrate that its discharges at the facility are not causing pollution, the CDO requires VWMC to either upgrade the facility or cease discharging produced water.
The Central Valley Water Board is a state agency responsible for the preservation and enhancement of the quality of California’s water resources. For more information, visit the Board’s website, https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralvalley.
Statement on Bureau of Reclamation’s April Water Allocation Announcement
News Release from Westlands Water District
Today, the Bureau of Reclamation announced the water allocation for south-of-Delta Central Valley Project agricultural water service contractors is being increased to 65%. In light of current hydrologic and reservoir conditions, this minor increase is astonishing.
Thomas Birmingham, Westlands Water District’s general manager, stated: “This announcement begs the question, what has to happen before south-of-Delta farmers served by the Central Valley Project can get a full supply?”
Since October 1, the beginning of the current water year, California has been blessed with abundant precipitation; the 2018-19 water year is now classified as wet. As of April 8, the snow water content in the northern and central Sierra Nevada was 160% and 163% of the long-term average, respectively. Storage in every CVP reservoir used to supply south-of-Delta CVP agricultural water service contractors was more than 100% of average for that date. Indeed, these reservoirs were and remain in flood control operations.
Birmingham added, “I know that Reclamation staff understands the consequences of the decisions they make. Reclamation staff understands reduced allocations in a year like this needlessly increases overdraft in already overdrafted groundwater basins. Reclamation staff understands delayed allocation announcements make it nearly impossible for farmers to effectively plan their operations. If Reclamation’s leadership could, they would make a 100% allocation. But Reclamation’s hands are tied by restrictions imposed by biological opinions issued under the Endangered Species Act. These restrictions have crippled the CVP and have provided no demonstrative protection for listed fish species, all of which have continued to decline despite the draconian effect the biological opinions have had on water supply for people.”
Birmingham concluded, “Notwithstanding the restrictions imposed by the biological opinions, Westlands firmly believes that there is sufficient water to allocate to south-of-Delta agricultural water services contractors 100%. Today’s announcement by Reclamation is disappointing for every south-of Delta farmer served by the CVP, and we hope Reclamation will increase the allocation quickly to enable farmers to quit pumping groundwater.”
After 2019, no one will be able to argue that water supply reductions for south-of-Delta CVP agricultural water service contractors are a result of hydrologic conditions. This year demonstrates only too well the crippling consequences of ineffective and unchecked regulations. Because of restrictions imposed on operations of the CVP under the guise of protecting fish, the CVP cannot be operated to satisfy one of the primary purposes for which it was built, supplying water to farmers.
There are different options available to make the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) a bit easier on farmers. Lauren Layne of Baker, Manock & Jensen is helping her clients in the Central Valley carry out the SGMA Act in the most beneficial way possible.
“We want to see the Central Valley thrive. So we represent irrigation and water districts who are the local agencies that are forming these groundwater sustainability agencies, and I serve as a council to a number of those groundwater sustainability agencies as well,” explained Layne.
According to Layne, a lot of farmers are considering fallowing certain land to put in recharge projects that will allow them to regulate irrigation, while simultaneously being beneficial to the groundwater basin as a whole.
Layne also highly encourages growers to install meters or transducers to monitor how much water is being used, and what the groundwater table looks like.
“Data is very, very, important from a legal standpoint. It’s important to have the information as a backup for any argument we’re going to make,” she said.
If the cost of installing a meter is an issue, Layne is working on an incentive program that will grant funding to farmers and incentivize them to put meters on.
To Deal with SGMA, Temperance Flat Dam Must Be Built
By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, also known as SGMA, is seen as dire for the future of farming as we know it in the San Joaquin Valley. One thing that could help reduce the threat of SGMA is more storage for surface water deliveries—increased storage such as the proposed Temperance Flat Dam.
Mario Santoyo is the executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Water Infrastructure Authority. For decades, Mario Santoyo has been pushing for the construction of Temperance Flat Dam.
“With this new groundwater sustainability law coming into play, it is going to basically shut down a lot of farming,” he said.
If farmers cannot prove that they are putting in as much water as they are taking out of the ground, they will lose their access to the groundwater pumps.
“Farming in the Central Valley is in for a world of hurt. The only thing that can help us won’t solve everything but can help us,” Santoyo said.
It is a major step in the right direction to be able to manage high runoff water that we are otherwise losing to the ocean—meaning millions and millions of acre-feet lost into the ocean.
“Building Temperance Flat, which would provide us additional storage opportunities up to additional 1.2 million acre-feet, will allow us to have carry over water from year to year,” Santoyo said. “This would come in handy when we hit dry years here in California. It would allow us to move water from above ground to below ground, stabilizing our groundwater condition.”
Forests Need Better Management, Despite Extreme Environmentalist Pushback
By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor
Dense forest growth inhibits water saturation. David Rogers, Madera county supervisor, explained to California Ag Today how less undergrowth will assist in water runoff in the forests.
“We have so much overgrowth in the forest that the snowpack wasn’t even making it to the ground,” he said.
The snow would sit on top of the vegetation and evaporate, thus never making it to the forest floor.
“Removing the vegetation is going to be an important component of restoring the health to the groundwater situation, because 60 percent of California’s water comes from the Sierra Nevadas,” Rogers said.
A 2013 study showed that 30 percent more water can be collected from the forest. This increase in water has been present in areas that have a healthy level of vegetation and not overcrowded. The overcrowded conditions have led to catastrophic fires, and it is important to manage those areas.
The burn areas of those fires are becoming a hazard.
“Not only does the soil runoff fill our reservoirs and mean dredging and all of those things, but what will return won’t be healthy vegetation,” Rogers said.
The vegetation that does return will be chaparral and absorb more water than the trees. The water would most likely be evaporated rather than absorbed.
“What was happening was there was no room for the snow to even hit the ground. It would sit on top like an ice sheet. It would evaporate from the top down and never get to the bottom,” Rogers explained.
Underground systems benefit from the forests; the runoff goes down through the rocks and crevices that in turn fill the rivers, streams, and wells.
“Our groundwater is dependent on that snowmelt going into the ground,” Rogers said. “Filtered underground rivers are a result of the water absorbed into the ground; the forest floors need to be managed.”
Editor’s Note: The image depicted in this article is exactly how a forest should be managed.
Groundwater Sustainability Will Be Focus of New Rules
By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor
Groundwater agencies up and down the state are formulating initial plans for growers in their areas to reduce overdraft pumping of groundwater as they prepare for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act regulations that will kick in around 2040. Ron Samuelian is a civil engineer with Provost and Pritchard consulting group, with offices around the state. He spoke with California Ag Today about their role as an engineering firm regarding helping growers with SGMA.
At the moment, a lot of the work is related to a plan. Using hydrogeology, they are figuring out the water budget, its impact, the amount of overdraft occurred, and how to monitor this in the future.
“But maybe most importantly, how are we going to fix it and what are we going to do about it? I think that is where we really come in. We understand not only ag but, urban and all of the other uses,” Samuelian said.
The goal of SGMA is to be in balance in 2040.
“In terms of sustainability over time, we have seen a decline in our water table. At a given well, the water level might bounce up and down, but the general trend has been to decline a 1 to 5 feet a year, depending on location,” Samuelian explained.
Water Projects Were Built to Deliver Surface Water to Farmers
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor
Water is always a concern while farming on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Daniel Hartwig is the resource manager of Huron-based Woolf Farming and Processing. The company is a multi-generation and multi-crop farming business. Hartwig explains how monitoring and being proactive helps them stay ahead of some of the water issues.
“Like everybody, we’re concerned that there’s not going to be enough water to do everything we’re currently doing,” Hartwig said. “I think we’re just waiting to see and trying to be proactive and get ahead of a lot of these water issues, but at the same time, we’re monitoring it and hopeful that there will be more surface water to make up for what we might be stopped from pumping.”
Not having surface water is a big problem on the west side.
“The entire reason the California Aqueduct and other canals were built was to have surface water to mitigate against the issues they had back in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Back before there was surface water available,” Hartwig explained.
Hartwig said he thinks that President Trump’s memorandum could be helpful.
“Anything that’s going to help give us water and allow it to be more reliable is very helpful. However, the issue is timing and … anything that’s going to take more time is more water loss, and that creates a struggle for all of us,” he explained.
“Regarding pump drilling, there are always discussions going on, but I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we can make any of those decisions just because we don’t know for sure what’s … going to come down the pipeline,” Hartwig said. “We’re evaluating, and we’re monitoring, and trying to be involved in these groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) discussions.”
Again, having surface water is the key to the future, noted Hartwig.
“The lack of surface water is a huge problem. I mean, we would not have to pump as much groundwater if we were able to get as much water as we are supposed to be receiving from the state and federal water projects,” Hartwig said.
California Ag Today conducted an extensive interview with Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights. We published Part 1, “Water Board’s Point of View on Increasing San Joaquin River Flows,” on November 28, 2016.
Grober explained the Water Board’s water diversion plan to adjust the flow objectives on the San Joaquin River to protect fish and wildlife. The plan, specifically, is to divert 40 percent of water flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers that flow into the lower San Joaquin River.
California Ag Today: We asked Mr. Grober to explain how the Federal Water users on the Westside of Fresno and Kings Counties were granted a mere 5 percent allocation this year, and why many did not receive their full 5 percent.
Grober: The 5 percent allocation is due to the junior water rights of those growers and to the interconnections of so many things — priority of right, hydrologic conditions, and minimal protections or fish and wildlife. Anyone who thinks it’s all due to fish is simplifying a very complex situation.
California Ag Today: Regarding the water hearings that are scheduled over the next few months, is the Water Board trying to give information to farmers and others would be affected by the decreased water should the Water Board’s proposal go through?
Grober: The ultimate goal is to make people even more prepared to provide comments to the Board at the scheduled hearings. It’s part of a public process where, if we did not get our economic figures right, we want [accurate] information from the stakeholder to make it right.
We thought we did a good job in an economic analysis on how we thought the proposed taking of 40 percent water would affect the communities and farmers. We clearly heard from many people who thought we did not do a good job, and my response is: Good, show us why, make a proposal and take it to the Water Board hearings, and then we can adjust it.
California Ag today: The Water Board has a 3,100-page report all about saving the salmon.
Grober: The reason we have a big report is because we are making a proposal and we’ve shown our work. Although it is work for people to look at it and review it, we have tried to make it easy so that people can see if we have made mistakes, if there are things that are left out or if we have made an incorrect assumption. That’s why we’ve shared it with everybody and here’s your opportunity for setting us straight.
It won’t help to vilify different people who are making good use of the water or to vilify or disparage the implementation of our laws and what we are required to do. We have a great process I think, as hard as it is, a public process where we can work these things out in the open, just to use it and deal with each other professionally.
-Les Grober, assistant deputy director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB, Water Board) Division of Water Rights
California Ag Today: We are sure you are getting a lot of information from farmers and city leaders about this not being a good use of the water.
Grober: These problems are not so simple that they could be reduced to a sound bite. I think we would have solved the salmon problems by now, but because we are in the drought situation, we are dealing with a precious resource, which is water. Everybody wants the water but there’s not enough to do all the things we would like to do with it.
California Ag Today: But there are many people in California who feel that more water for fish instead of farmers is reprehensible.
Grober: It won’t help to vilify different people who are making good use of the water or to vilify or disparage the implementation of our laws and what we are required to do. We have a great process I think, as hard as it is, a public process where we can work these things out in the open, just to use it and deal with each other professionally.
California Ag Today: But we’ve heard from experts that have been studying this, that the increased flows have not really helped these species. Do you have proof that they have?
Grober: It’s hard to show proof one way or the other because recently we have not increased flows to see what effect it would have. That seems to be a notion that is out there, that we have somehow done something to increase flows in recent years, and that’s simply not the case.
If anything, flows have gone down. And in the recent drought years, as I said, even the minimal flows that were required were adjusted downward. You would have to show me that evidence that flows have gone up and there has been no response to those higher flows. I do not believe that there is any.
California Ag Today: So, the Water Board wants 40 percent of unimpaired flows?
Grober: When we say the requirement is 30 percent to 50 percent of unimpaired flows, it is 30 percent to 50 percent of that amount, which means just the opposite. It means that 50 to 70 percent of [flows] for February through June would be available for consumptive use.
That is frequently misunderstood and turned around. That is still from February through June, so it means more than 50 to 70 percent since other times of the year this water is available for consumptive use.
California Ag Today: Is the Water Board looking at the fact that if the water is needed for the species, it is going to force these growers to use more groundwater? That is a direction in which we do not want to go, especially in a region that has not yet had critical overdrafts. How does the Water Board look at that domino effect forced on these growers in order to survive, stay in business and produce the food in this major Ag production region?
Grober: Implementing that 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired flows would mean less surface water available for diversion. So our analysis of the potential environmental effects and overall effects of the program, based on recent drought information and other information, shows we would see increased groundwater pumping.
California Ag Today: Is the increased pumping weighted at all in the proposal, because overdraft groundwater pumping is not sustainable?
Grober: By our analysis, the area is already in overdraft.
California Ag Today: What? Why would there be overdraft pumping in an area that has great irrigation districts such as Modesto and Oakdale Irrigation Districts delivering surface water? We did not think growers in those districts would be overdrafting.
Grober: Sure. Within those irrigation districts themselves, they are not overdrafting. That’s why the analysis we do goes into that level of detail. The irrigation districts that already have a source of surface water actually apply much more water than they need just for the crop, so they are recharging groundwater within those districts, and even with this proposal, would continue to recharge groundwater. It is all those areas outside of those districts that don’t have access to surface water that are pumping groundwater.
California Ag Today: There is a lot more pumping of groundwater on the east side near the foothills.
Grober: Based on the information that we have, the total area — not just the districts that have access to surface water — but the total area, is already overdrafting groundwater. And there are many areas on the east side of these districts now, up into areas that were previously not irrigated, converting now to orchard crops. So with the information we have, there are large areas of production using water from the basin. The entire area is to some extent pumping more groundwater than there is recharge.
California Ag Today: We’ve been concern about this.
Grober: That’s why the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is going to be good, because the local areas are going to have to get on top of that information and on top of the management.
Farmers and Sustainable Conservation Collaborate on Economic Improvements
By Laurie Greene, Editor
Sustainable Conservation helps California thrive by uniting people to solve some of the toughest issues facing our land, air and waters. Everyday the organization brings together business, government, landowners and others to steward the resources that Californians depend on in ways that make economic sense.
“We partner extensively with farmers in California on a variety of issues which focus on how to find, solutions that will solve the environmental issue, but also work economically,” said Ashley Boren, executive director, Sustainable Conservation, which has a home office in San Francisco as well as an office in Modesto.
“We work with the dairies in California to find manure management practices that work for the farm but also reduce nitrate leeching to ground water, to better protect groundwater quality.
“We help simplify the permeating process for landowners who want to do restoration work, maybe stream bank stabilization or erosion control projects,” Boren said. “We make it much easier to get good projects done.”
“We have a partnership with the nursery industry. This voluntary collaboration aims to stop the sale of invasive plants because fifty percent of the plants that are invasive in California were introduced through gardening, and the nursery industry has really stepped up to be part of the solution on that issue,” she said.
Sustainable Conservation is also doing a lot of work with groundwater. “We think there’s a real opportunity for farmers to help be part of the solution in sustainable ground water management. We are particularly focused on how to capture flood waters in big storm events, and how to spread the water onto active farmland as a way of getting it back into the ground,” Boren said.
Boren noted that she has partnered with the Almond Board of California and other grower associations regarding floodwater management. We actually have a pilot program with Madera Irrigation District and Tulare Irrigation District on helping them with some tools, as well as developing some tools together with them, that will help them figure out how to optimize groundwater management in their basins.
Cris Carrigan Opens Dialogue With Growers about Nitrates in Water
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
Over the last year, 19 Salinas Valley growers, and recently 26 citrus growers on the east side of Tulare County, each received a confidential letter from Christian Carrigan, director, State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), Office of Enforcement. The letter constituted an invitation to a meeting to discuss the provision of uninterrupted replacement water to communities and individuals who rely on the region’s groundwater which contains too many nitrates.
Invitation recipients are growers who farm larger tracts of agricultural land in regions identified to have elevated nitrate-contaminated groundwater based on historical evidence. The ‘Harter Report,’ officially submitted to SWRCB in 2012 as, “Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water,” reinforced the nitrate problem.
The letter presented recipients with a choice: provide replacement potable water to disadvantaged communities with substandard drinking water or face a mandated Cleanup and Abatement Order that would require the development, installation, and ongoing operation of expensive reverse-osmosis water treatment systems or other fixes.
“We’re looking at ways to have a broader dialogue with the larger agricultural community,” Cris Carrigan explained. “I sent the confidential letter to a group of agricultural land owners in Tulare County and because I offered to maintain its confidentiality, I really don’t want to talk about the contents of it now.”
“I should be clear, this is an action by the Office of Enforcement at the State Water Board,” Carrigan said. “It is led by Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director. I am a legal officer and he’s my client, the decision-maker at the Board.”
“We have not talked about this with the board members, Tom Howard, executive director, or Michael Laufer, chief counsel,” Carrigan clarified. “We have preserved their neutrality by not communicating with them about this action in case we need to do an adjudicatory proceeding. We did the same thing in Salinas.”
Carrigan noted that his office does not want this to go into an adjudicatory proceeding. “We are really set up, primarily, to try and resolve this in a mutually acceptable and cooperative way. We think there are ways to do that. We’ve learned a lot from engaging with the agricultural community in Salinas. Now we hope to apply those lessons and learn some new things in Tulare County.”
Carrigan commented that he is having the right kind of dialogue with farmers. “We’re talking about the right kinds of things. Again, I understand that nitrogen means food, food means jobs. We need to have a scientifically defensible way to bring back [water] resource restoration, so that our aquifers can become clean again.”
“In the meantime, we have to prevent people from being poisoned by bad water. That is what this is all about,” Carrigan said.