Transparency Guides Greater Kaweah SGMA Process

  • Jun 23, 2020

A transparent planning process in developing its groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) earned the Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GKGSA) its community’s goodwill, along with outreach and engagement efforts that created partnerships with agricultural commodity groups and environmental and environmental justice organizations alike.

The GKGSA covers 340 square miles, or half of the entire Kaweah Subbasin. It operates through a joint powers agreement among six entities, including ACWA member agencies Kaweah Delta Conservation District, Kings County Water District, Lakeside Irrigation Water District, Tulare County and St. Johns Water District. The California Water Service Company is the sixth JPA member.

Chronic lowering of groundwater levels, reduced groundwater storage, degraded water quality and land subsidence are the undesirable results addressed in its GSP. To address them, the GKGSA held an open solicitation for projects and management actions, with many of its land use and water agency partners proposing large infrastructure projects and programs. Those include groundwater recharge, habitat conservation, and land set aside programs.

The GKGSA acknowledged early on that surface water in its area, primarily from the Friant-Kern Canal and the Kaweah and St Johns Rivers, is fully appropriated. Those who hold those appropriative rights are already at the table, so the strategy is to work through partners with the appropriate legal authority and expertise to perform recharge activities.

The GKGSA is also addressing an important challenge related to data gaps. For example, reducing groundwater pumping in one area does not necessarily correlate with mitigating subsidence in that same area, depending on the soils and characteristics of the aquifer.

“Forming the GSA was really the easiest task we’re probably ever going to have,” said GKGSA General Manager Eric Osterling. “As we developed the first version of our GSP, we began to realize just how data deficient we really were.”

Aside from the unique hydrogeological conditions, the collection of data itself can present other difficulties. The GKGSA is home to 5,000 growers, raising the need to hire enough staff to measure water use and questions around how to gain property access to gather pertinent data. The GKGSA’s technical experts are also working to fill data gaps by establishing new monitoring locations, and by acquiring private and protected existing data to continue the process of analyzing past trends within the subbasin, known as “hindcasting.”

Looking ahead, Osterling said that the results from implementation will not be realized right away, as solving such massive legacy conditions all at once would have tremendous consequences. His main priority is finding solutions that meet SGMA’s requirements with the least impact to each of the diverse interest groups that are involved.

“Everybody’s going to bleed a bit from this, and if we try to solve this too quickly, it’s absolutely going to devastate our economy and regional culture,” Osterling shared, stressing the need to remain focused on the importance of transparency, clear communication, and engagement of stakeholders in the subbasin.