Some growers say a new California groundwater trading system is needed to combat climate change and keep growers profitable. Credit: Westlands Water District

What's at stake?

The Kings and Westlands sub-basins got the rare green light from the state, after adjusting to feedback on subsidence and domestic well challenges.

This story was produced by SJV Water, an independent nonprofit newsroom covering water in the San Joaquin Valley.

Most groundwater plans covering the San Joaquin Valley got a big, fat thumbs down from the state.

There were two glaring exceptions.

Plans by the Westlands Water District and Kings subbasin, which together cover most of the valley portion of Fresno County, got recommendations for approval from the Department of Water Resources.

Those areas face all the same problems as the Kern, Kaweah, Chowchilla, Tule, Tulare Lake (Kings County) and Delta-Mendota subbasins, whose plans were stamped “inadequate” earlier this month and sent to the State Water Resources Control Board for possible enforcement action.

Westlands and Kings have similar water quality issues, sinking land and plummeting water tables. And their initial plans, like those from all the other valley groundwater agencies, were kicked back last year with a list of deficiencies. 

But their plans got gold stars this time around.

How’d they do it?

In the Kings subbasin, a major change was the addition of a $40 million well mitigation program to fix domestic drinking water wells that could be impacted by dropping groundwater tables, said Paul Gosselin, deputy director of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act for DWR.

“They were pretty lacking with the definition of undesirable results for lowering of groundwater levels,” Gosselin said of the King’s initial plan. “They were gonna have a large number of wells potentially go dry without any sort of mitigation.” 

That was corrected in the second draft of the plan, he said.

Another big issue in the Kings subbasin was consistency among the seven different groundwater sustainability agencies within the subbasin. Each has its own independent groundwater plan, but they needed to be coordinated so the subbasin operates as a whole.

And when it comes to subsidence, sinking land from groundwater pumping, Kings subbasin water managers completed data analysis and updated the minimum groundwater levels to reflect the findings, said Gosselin. 

“Recognizing what you have, making the most of it and looking ahead to improve upon that is consistent with the law,” he added. 

Managers also made changes on water quality, broadening what constituents are considered and directly tying contaminant levels to groundwater levels, said Gosselin. 

In the Westside subbasin, which has only one groundwater agency, the state had similar issues with the first plan on subsidence and groundwater levels. 

A major area of concern was subsidence, specifically around the San Luis Canal, which brings water to the area from San Luis Reservoir. The state was also concerned about some of the groundwater levels and water quality, said Katarina Campbell, supervisor of resources for Westlands Water District. 

For the groundwater levels, managers modeled historical lows and included a 40-foot buffer, said Campbell. The explanation of the groundwater levels had to be moved in the plan and once that adjustment was made, the state was seemingly satisfied. 

Staff also added additional monitoring sites for subsidence. And the biggest change around subsidence was the addition of different minimum groundwater levels around the San Luis canal to address subsidence concerns there, said Campbell. 

“We were able to closely coordinate with the Department of Water Resource and get good feedback on updates that needed to occur,” said Campbell. “We had about seven public meetings where we were able to coordinate with the public on the proposed changes and get their feedback as well. I think those two elements led to our success.”

Even though the Westlands and Kings subbasin plans have been recommended for approval, it doesn’t mean there won’t be more corrections. 

The state will probably release detailed reports of its formal determinations on the approvals within a month or so, said Gosselin. That will include corrective actions which will need to be addressed by the five-year update for the subbasins, he added. 

“They’ve all been doing a lot of work,” said Gosselin. “Still, there’s a lot of work, a lot of adaptation ahead.”

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