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New regulations to reduce groundwater pumping

Under new regulations set by the state, water stakeholders will have to report how much water they are pumping from the ground.

"I get asked a lot, 'Are we out of the drought?' We are out of the emergency, but the effects of the drought are not visible, they're under the ground, and that's our groundwater levels. They're still quite deep," said Harry Starkey, general manager of the West Kern Water District.

The plan is called the Sustainability Groundwater Management Act, and the hope is to have the groundwater tables rise back up to normal within the next 20 years. The state will be broken up into basins, and within these basins, all water stakeholders will have to work together to come up with this plan.

"It's a groundwater sustainability plan. It's a plan that says how we are going to get sustainable over a 20-year horizon," said Starkey.

Within each basin, there will be a Groundwater Authority Agency, and they will oversee operations of all pumpers, making sure they are complying with the plan set in place. They will carry out these practices of water supply enhancement and ground water regulations within their territory and show the state every five years they are working on improvements.

"If a number of thresholds are not met with respect to the new law, the state will to one degree or another take over the management of the groundwater subbasin beneath us. Their methods are going to be a lot more harsh and a lot more expensive than what we are trying to accomplish here locally," said Paul Hendrix, manager of Tulare Irrigation District.

This is something farmers and water district managers alike are not keen on seeing happen.

"You may have an enforcement person come in and turn your well off on your orchard. It's frustrating that we have to get to this point without surface water, we will see a quarter of Kern County farmland go away within the next 20 years," said Steve Murray, owner of Murray Family Farms.

Surface water, historically, has been allocated to growers in the Central Valley as a means to prevent groundwater pumping and the alleviation of groundwater tables.

"Years ago, the state realized Kern County and Tulare County were viable growing economies. Groundwater tables were dropping years ago, so the answer was let's build more water projects from the north to bring that water here and help sustain the groundwater," said Hendrix.

However, over the years, the Central Valley has been forced to pump water from the ground to make up for the loss in surface water, which has been allocated to environmental projects.

"Now things have gotten more complicated. There's a number of pressures on the supply, one of those being drought, another one being regulations and some environmental pressures, and so the growers are not getting the deliveries of the surface water they were contracted to," said Murray.

Regardless of the allocation of surface water, the stakeholders will have no choice but to comply with the new regulations set by the state. With everyone within the basin working together to meet the same goal, regardless of how sustainable the stakeholder has been in the past.

"I think the frustration that farmers have is that if you are participating in Arvin-Edison water bank, which has spectacular water banking infrastructure in place and is in balance, but next to you there is a district that is not in balance, the question is going to be how do we get the whole valley into balance," said Murray.

Prior to the new legislation, there's never been any rules on pumping before.

"We haven't had a law in California that limited your use of groundwater. As long as you were beneficially using it, like a farm, no harm, no fallow, but some of those wholesome practices are going to be called into question, and they are going to be affected by this law," said Starkey.

Additionally, there's no regulations on saying whose water is whose.

"There's no, 'Who has rights first.' It's the first guy, it's the biggest guy who has the rights to the groundwater," said Murray.

This new law will also divvy up the water in addition to regulating groundwater pumping. Murray said this new law will mean the loss of almost one-third of agriculture in Kern County, and growers may have to find other ways of staying afloat.

"Already in the desert, if you go into the Antelope Valley where you had farmers throughout Indian wells, the county came in and said it's no longer farmland, it's recreational land, and so you can't turn on a pump. They have already done that in the desert, and since it already happened there, it could certainly happen here in the valley, as well," said Murray.

Basins will have until mid-June to come up with their agencies. From there, plans will be set in place to reach sustainability.

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