Tri-County GSA Counts Wins Despite Tough Scenarioo

  • Jun 23, 2020

Tri-County Water Authority’s Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) manages a combined 108,000 acres within the critically overdrafted Tule and Tulare Lake subbasins. In developing and submitting its groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) earlier this year for review by the state, the Corcoran-based GSA is now looking ahead to the implementation phase of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Tri-County Executive Director Deanna Jackson

According to the State Water Resources Control Board’s recently released fully-appropriated stream system mapping tool, this region of the state contains streams that are fully appropriated year-round. This ultimately means there is insufficient water supply for new water rights applications on the streams in these watersheds. The GSPs chart out a path forward to balance between reduced reliance on groundwater and increased surface water supplies.  However, limited access to surface water is just one of the many constraints that GSAs are facing in actively managing groundwater resources.

“It’s tough out here. There’s just not a lot of water to be had,” said Tri-County Executive Director Deanna Jackson, who manages its GSA.

Tri-County and other GSAs in the Tulare Lake Region, are very concerned with surface water allocations from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project’s Friant-Kern Canal. However, there are constraints on the canal’s capacity due to impacts from land subsidence. Subsidence, along with degraded water quality, continuing groundwater level decline, and loss of groundwater storage, are the critical undesirable results defined by SGMA in Tri-County’s two subbasins. Subsidence is of particular concern in the Tule due to the loss of capacity on the Friant-Kern Canal, and the alignment of High Speed Rail.

Groundwater recharge when high flood flow water is available is a good option, but for Tri-County, a layer of the area’s namesake Corcoran clay limits recharge capacity in certain areas. In response, the GSA’s toolbox of management actions includes incentivizing landowners to move from deep-water aquifer pumping in the confined portions of the basin to using shallow wells in the unconfined portions of the basin. Tri-County’s GSP also includes a 60,000 acre-foot above ground storage project and a 5,800 AF project for groundwater recharge with a habitat corridor, which could help Tri-County earn mitigation credits in working with agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Funding for projects such as these are a huge obstacle for all GSAs, but critical to implementation.

One area where the GSA will continue efforts is in gathering data. To strengthen data collection and monitoring, Tri-County GSA worked with hydrologists to improve modeling. Its board of directors also approved funding for remote sensing to provide satellite data of groundwater at a cost of 76 cents per acre.

Another action within the GSP would require metering for all landowners. Most large landowners already have meters in the basin, but this would expand to smaller landowners and farmers. Coming from a farming family, Jackson understands what is at stake, and why every effort must be taken to minimize impacts on agriculture.

Despite some early challenges, Jackson can point to significant wins for the GSA. Among them, getting the GSP submitted by last January’s deadline, which she described as “monumental.” Tri-County also has a robust coordination agreement with its neighboring GSAs, and a technical advisory committee that includes representation from disadvantaged communities, agriculture, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Perhaps the biggest win was successfully communicating and uniting around the dire need for taking local action through SGMA, with buy-in from all stakeholders.

“I think the realization that there’s not enough water underground, the education process that got us there, is a big win,” Jackson said. “It is a tough scenario out here, but I will say that the agricultural community has shown they’re willing to step up.”