San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

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By Vicky Boyd

With the first major deadline of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act only months away, San Joaquin County is putting finishing touches on groundwater sustainability agency maps to send to the state. 

At the same time, members of the local SGMA Work Group have begun circulating a draft agreement to form the East San Joaquin Groundwater Authority, a joint powers authority.

All of the activity is in preparation for drafting a subbasin groundwater sustainability plan – or GSP – that must be submitted to the California Department of Water Resources by Jan. 31, 2020. And the task ahead won't be easy.

"It's going to be a challenge," said Joe Valente, San Joaquin Farm Bureau board member and a vineyard and orchard manager. "Every district is a little bit different, but we're still all in one basin, so everyone has got to come together at one point and come up with one plan."

Brandon Nakagawa, San Joaquin County water resources coordinator, agreed. "There are over a dozen agencies that could potentially sign our JPA, so that will require very close coordination. Then there are the mutual stakeholders. And we haven't had to engage yet with environmental groups or interests, which SGMA requires in the development of the GSP." Members of the subbasin work group have set a self-imposed deadline of mid-March to finalize the JPA. 

Groundwater Sustainability Agencies

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed by the California Legislature in 2014, gave entities the option of drafting individual groundwater sustainability plans or one larger coordinated plan for each moderately or severely overdrafted groundwater basin or subbasin. The East San Joaquin Groundwater Subbasin, which includes most of San Joaquin County, falls into that category. 

In late 2015, Stockton East Water District was the first to throw its hat in the ring to become a groundwater sustainability agency, or GSA, triggering a domino effect of nearly two dozen other districts or cities to follow suit. Many did so to retain local autonomy over water resources.

Currently, the subbasin has 16 GSAs, although Nakagawa said that might change as a few entities decide to merge into single groundwater agencies.

One of the requirements is GSAs cannot overlap one another. The North San Joaquin Water Conservation District and the Lockeford Community Services District were among those with common ground. Coming to a mutual agreement on GSA borders wasn't a big deal, said Valente, also North San Joaquin district president.

"We sat down and met with a few of their folks, and there really weren't any big issues," he said. 

So far, Valente said, the county has been helpful in preparing the GSA maps and other SGMA-related activities. "They want to be there to help, but they don't want to come across like they're our big brothers," he said.

Most of the overlaps have already been resolved, and Nakagawa said the county expects to submit finalized maps to the state by the June 30 deadline.

JPA formation

Because of the number of GSAs, water districts and cities within the East San Joaquin Sub Basin decided to form a JPA to draft the groundwater plan without losing local autonomy. Most of the potential JPA members also had a history of working together for the past 15 years as part of the East San Joaquin County Groundwater Basin Authority. 

The group, of which SJFB also is a member, formed in response to significant groundwater overdraft during the 1980s. It is funded by an annual 15-cent-per-acre assessment on most ag land and a $5-per-house assessment on residential properties.

The proposed East San Joaquin Groundwater Authority will be funded initially by $5,000 from each GSA to cover operating overhead. To allay concerns from some members about fiduciary responsibility, large expenditures must be approved by a super majority of two-thirds. One of the big issues to be addressed is future JPA funding.

"Five years from now, what's the cost going to be?" Valente said. "It's kind of like the irrigated lands program – it's now $5 per acre, and it gets expensive. The more and more they stack on it, the more and more property owners get frustrated."

Groundwater Sustainability Plan

Even before the JPA draft was completed, the county hired RMC Water and Environment, Inc. in late 2016 to begin collecting groundwater data to use to develop the groundwater plan. Funding for the consulting firm is from a $250,000 DWR grant along with $250,000 in county matching funds, Nakagawa said.

"We're moving the current model into an up-to-date platform with up-to-date data," Nakagawa said. "We already have a decade of groundwater data we've collected. They will provide additional information, such as surface water, irrigation methods and what types of programs can be done for efficiency improvements."

The county also is exploring how it can work with other groups, such as the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, to share information and avoid duplication of data collection.