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Investigation: Just because the drought is done doesn't mean the water crisis is over

Steve Murray of Murray Family Farms overlooks his land. California's proposed solution to reach groundwater sustainability could cause farming in the Central Valley to decrease within the next 20 years (KBAK/KBFX photo)

The drought is officially over in California, but our water crisis is not.

Eyewitness News investigates the proposed solutions to help our water supply for the long haul.

"What's interesting from last year is we were simultaneously in a drought emergency and we were in a flood emergency, and so it was kind of an interesting thing for Californians to try to wrap their head around," Harry Starkey, district manager for the West Kern Water District said.

Starkey said California will always have its dry years, and then we are going to have some wet years.

"It's that kind of a schizophrenic nature of our water supply that people need to not lose sight of," he said.

The effects of the drought are still very visible. Groundwater levels are depleted, and Starkey said, "There's still residents outside in Tulare County that don't have water. Their well is dried up, so it's an issue that will take many years, many wet years to bring groundwater levels up to a level that I would consider safe."

Dana Munn, the general manager of the Shafter/Wasco Irrigation District, said in a dry year the water tables are down, and in a wet year they are up, and when you can hit an average that means you're sustainable.

"We have goals of being sustainable, so one of the ways to getting to that goal is bringing water in during the wet years, putting it in the groundwater recharge facilities and having that count against your use during the dry years," Munn said.

So is reaching water sustainability a possibility in California?

"You know what, that's a question we have to ask mother nature, and I think she'd be silent on it," Starkey said.

There are some things that we can do to achieve this, but it does come at a cost.

"We're trying to do things," Starkey said. Things like using groundwater banking facilities to capture water during wet years, so we have it during dry years.

"We're impounding it, we're actually storing it underground," he said.

Curtis Creel is the general manager for the Kern County Water Agency. He said our county has invested a lot of money into water banking projects.

"Kern County has done a lot since the late '80s," he said. "We've invested over $300 million in infrastructure so that we can store water in various banking projects in the ground throughout Kern County, so we have water for those dry periods."

As for where Kern County gets its surface water, some of it comes from local rivers and streams.

"About 60 percent of our water supply originates somewhere else in the state," Creel said. "In the past, we've received water from the State Water Project and from the Central Valley Project."

Both the SWP and the CVP operate differently in terms of costs, but contractors, such as farmers, are responsible for certain costs regardless of how much water is received.

"So every farmer that pumps water from either the aqueduct or the State Water Project, they pay 100 percent every year for rights to that water, regardless if they get the allocation or not," said Beatris Sanders, executive director for the Kern County Farm Bureau.

Drought is one reason they do not get all of the water, but another reason is a small fish called the delta smelt. It is an endangered species that is protected by the EPA.

In a statement to Eyewitness News, the EPA said it is "required to uphold the Clean Water Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1972. The CWA mandates the protection of water quality for all beneficial uses in waters, including for recreation, aquatic life, threatened or endangered species, and as a drinking water or irrigation source."

The Kern County Water Agency said that last year about 1 million acre-feet were not pumped, but allowed to go into the ocean to protect the delta smelt.

So when farmers don't get 100 percent allocation, they rely on groundwater to make up for the loss of water.

However, that is about to change with a state law called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which is a 20-year plan to bring our groundwater tables back up and achieve sustainability.

"So we were sick to begin with, and SGMA is just a tool to help correct that, but our big problem is not our local agencies, which have done very innovated things to capture water," Munn said. "Our problem is we have contracts for supplies our of the Delta that weren't being honored because of environmentalists, but if the environmental rules are it then you got to comply with SGMA and given you have an imbalance, you've got to solve it."

"The goal of SGMA is to very simply, the goal is to balance our relationship with groundwater," Starkey said.

Starkey said SGMA will eventually fix our "overdraft" problem, meaning using groundwater without replenishing it. However, this will leave a "huge impact on farming," he said.

This is the first time restrictions have been placed on how much groundwater we can or can't pump.

"There is no question that it will result in a reduction of agriculture production here," Creel said. "We simply can not make up for what the law will require us to do."

The Kern County Farm Bureau said 74 percent of all of California's agriculture production comes from the Central Valley, and with the ongoing delta smelt debate and now SGMA, our agriculture industry could dramatically decrease in the future.

"If we can't pump what we need out of the groundwater basin due to SGMA then we'll have to decrease the amount of food production we are able to grow," Sanders said. "It's possible to balance the basin, but at the cost of you know minimizing the groundwater pumping, so it's going to have to be a balance of many balances, again this is where the allocation for the two water projects are so important to the Central Valley, because if we don't get that allocation in dry years and we also don't get that allocation from our groundwater pumping, we're limited," she said.

On top of that, water officials said our water delivery infrastructure is old.

"The infrastructure that is there today was developed 70 years ago, and hasn't really been updated for many years, and it is time that we finish off the State Water Project with variously projects that will improve how water moves through the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta to allow us to continue to take some of those supplies of water and bring then down there into Kern County," Creel said.

"This is a problem across the United States, we have this ancient infrastructure that was built a hundred or so years ago, and now it needs to get replaced, and there is not a big pot of gold sitting out there to pay for it, and so the only way to accomplish this is by increasing water rates, and that's challenging," Starkey said.

So what are the opinions about the current "solutions" and is our water crisis permanent?

Here are Munn's thoughts, "it's as permanent as those endangered species rules are, and it appears the we are not going to get them changed."

According to Sanders, "In the bigger picture if we could fix the allocation from the Federal Project and the State Water Project to always allocate 100 percent water whether if it's a drought year or not, it takes that pressure off of the ground water pumping necessity. Farmers have learned to use every single drop of water to maximize their yields, they don't waste water. I feel like we've been diligent as growers in how we've managed to keep our industry thriving, not I don't think they could say the same for the EPA's regulations on the Endangered Species Act. I think there has to be a level of reality that has to come to the table in regards to priorities of our state," she said.

"There is no single answer, some people would say we need to conserve our way out of it, but that's very difficult to do," Creel said. "People need to be very cautious about how they use water around the home. I know that they think in terms of 'well I'm just a small user. I'm one person, I'm one family, so it doesn't really matter,' but anything they can do to conserve water around the home matters."

"I do think it's (SGMA) is good in that regard, but it's a real step backwards for Kern County because we've already seen some of what an agricultural contraction because of some of the problems in the Delta, and now you have this layering of SGMA that is going to push back further," Starkey said.

"I hope we don't get down, you know 20 years, 15 years down the road and be like, we need to start producing food locally again," Sanders said.

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