LOIS HENRY: Another group of Kern County water districts to form their own groundwater agency | Lois Henry

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A group of water districts clustered on the western edge of Kern County that are currently members of the Kern Groundwater Authority (KGA) announced they will form their own groundwater sustainability agency.

The Westside District Water Authority, made up of the Belridge Water Storage District and the Lost Hills and the Berrenda Mesa water districts, announced at the June 22 KGA meeting, it would form its own groundwater agency but remain a member of the larger authority, according to General Manager Mark Gilkey.

He said the districts share a number of similarities apart from the larger Kern subbasin, including that they overlie an area with very little useable native groundwater, and should have formed their own GSA years ago. This will bring the number of GSAs in the Kern subbasin to 13, the largest being the KGA.

Gilkey also acknowledged this move will give the westside districts, “The ability to speak for ourselves,” if the subbasin’s overall groundwater sustainability plan is found inadequate putting the subbasin into probation under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The act requires aquifers be brought into balance by 2040.

“If we weren’t a GSA, we couldn’t do that,” he said.

Concerns about state probation were part of what spurred another group of water districts to split from KGA in May.

Those districts not only formed their own groundwater agency, they also pulled out of KGA entirely and wrote their own groundwater plan. The newly formed South of Kern River Districts Groundwater Sustainability Agency is made up of the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District, Tejon-Castac Water District and Arvin Community Services District.

All of this comes right at crunch time for the KGA and other Kern GSAs as a state deadline to submit a revamped groundwater sustainability plan is looming on July 27. Each GSA within the Kern subbasin can write its own plan, but they must be coordinated.

The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) found all the plans deficient back in January and gave groundwater managers six months to resubmit plans.

Subbasins with plans deemed “inadequate” even after resubmission risk being put into probationary status. That would allow the state to impose strict pumping limits and hefty fines and fees.

One of the reasons there is so much concern about Kern going into probationary status is because of “minimum thresholds.”

Minimum thresholds are a groundwater red line, the lowest level a water table can drop without worsening water quality, harming wells or adding to the chronic depletion of the aquifer.

In Kern, water districts right next to one another have minimum thresholds at different levels, something DWR called out in its initial evaluation. In particular, the Semitropic Water Storage District has set its minimum thresholds an average 189 feet below the current water table. That means its farmers could, theoretically, pump the aquifer down that much more before the district would take action.

In some cases, Semitropic’s levels are hundreds of feet below minimum thresholds set by water districts right next door, making it impossible for those districts to maintain their water tables.

Semitropic’s General Manager Jason Gianquinto told SJV Water in a previous story that the district is managing groundwater on a “glide path,” which includes numerous programs to keep the district from hitting those lowest levels.

It’s unclear whether that will be acceptable to DWR. If not, that could put the entire Kern subbasin into probation.

Under Water Code Section 10735.2(e), however, there may be an out. The code states: “The (state Water Resources Control) board shall exclude from probationary status any portion of a basin for which a groundwater sustainability agency demonstrates compliance with the sustainability goal.”

In the water world, it’s known as the “good guy clause,” meaning if groundwater agencies can show they’ve been working toward sustainability per all the requirements of SGMA, they might not be put into probation with the rest of a subbasin.

And that may be the lily pad the various KGA members are seeking.

“That’s not the main reason,” Gilkey said. “But it is a reason.”

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