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Mid-Kaweah publishes sustainability plan, accepting public comment

Mid-Kaweah publishes sustainability plan, accepting public comment

Tulare Irrigation District general manager, Aaron Fukuda explains the Mid Kaweah ground water sustainability plan to member agency City of Visalia

By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN  and Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – Agencies are not quite in the home stretch of groundwater sustainability yet, but they are certainly heading towards the end of the beginning of the sustainability plan formation.

The Tulare Irrigation District general manager, Aaron Fukuda, and ambassador for the Mid Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency (Mid Kaweah) presented an update on their groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) to the Visalia City Council last Tuesday, Sept. 3. Made up of three agencies, the Tulare Irrigation District, City of Visalia and City of Tulare, the Mid Kaweah is tasked with sustaining groundwater levels under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Manager Act (SiGMA). 

Since 2015 Mid Kaweah has been working with the other two groundwater sustainability agencies (GSA) to cover the Kaweah sub-basin to deter overdraft. And in July Mid Kaweah published their draft version of their GSP. Now they are waiting for the public to comment, collaborate with the Greater and East Kaweah GSAs, work towards plan implementation and then find a way to cover the cost. 

Public comment encouraged

The Mid-Kaweah GSP is available online at www.midkaweah.org or in person at the Visalia Branch of the Tulare County Library or City of Tulare Library. Comments on the document are due by Sept. 16 and can be emailed to midkaweah@gmail.com or mailed attention to MKGSA Groundwater Sustainability Plan Public Comments c/o Tulare Irrigation District, P.O. Box 1920, Tulare, CA 93275.

Mid-Kaweah’s GSP encourages public participation not only during the public comment period on the plan but also after it is approved. Mid Kaweah notes in the plan under GSP Implementation that they will continue to inform beneficial users and interested parties through the continuation of activities implemented to develop the GSP. Key activities for the public to follow and engage in GSP implementation include attendance at regularly scheduled meetings of the Mid Kaweah GSA board of directors, advisory committee and Kaweah Subbasin Management Team. The Mid Kaweah will continue to notify the public through email, public postings and social media.

Collaborating over Kaweah

Development of Mid Kaweah’s plan came as a result of intra-basin coordination activities with the KSMT, comprised of representatives from each of the three Kaweah Subbasin GSAs. According to the GSP meeting focused on development and evaluation of key policy and technical issues mutually shared by the GSAs. 

Fukuda said the Mid-Kaweah GSA covers about 25% of the Kaweah Subbasin, about the same as the East Kaweah, while the Greater Kaweah GSA comprises about half of the basin. He said their draft GSP cannot be fully submitted to the Department of Water Resources by January 2020 until it has worked out issues between the three GSPs. Reports have to be made to the DWR every five years. Some of the goals include identifying strategies to avoid fallowed ag land, consider new housing needs, preserve adequate supplies for unincorporated communities and schools, as well as define responsibilities and projects for the GSA.

“The collective goals are still under negotiation,” Fukuda said. 

Part of the Mid Kaweah’s collaboration with the two other GSAs, and perhaps others beyond the subbasin is how much water is being taken out before it even crosses the Mid Kaweah boundaries. According to Fukuda, the data in the GSP actually show that the Mid-Kaweah GSA is putting in 38,000 acre feet of water into the aquifer more than it is taking out currently but doesn’t take into account how much water was taken out of the aquifer before it reaches them as groundwater travels in the southwesterly direction from the mountains across the Valley floor in Tulare County. 

“Numerically we are putting more in than we are taking out but the water level is still dropping,” Fukuda said. “We need to identify why we are putting in more yet groundwater levels are still declining.”

Goals and implementation

Fukuda explained to the council that the goal of the GSP is to keep water levels sustainable, not return them to what they had been before the drought. The GSP also established a floor for how low groundwater levels can get before the sub-basin is out of compliance with SiGMA. Tulare Irrigation District has set a depth of 195 feet below the surface as the watermark for compliance. Fukuda said the GSA has until 2040 to ensure that all of the goals are met. In years when the GSA boundary is in overdraft, Fukuda said the plan directs the GSA board to enforce pumping reductions called management actions. 

Management actions include: groundwater recharge projects and programs; surface reservoir projects; leveraged surface water exchange programs; a groundwater extraction measurement implementation program; a conceptual groundwater marketing program; future urban and agricultural conservation; a groundwater allocation mechanism among well owners and operators and other projects and management actions. A large part of recharge in the first few years of the GSP, at least as it is drafted are recharge basins and flood irrigation.

Already underway is a 60-acre groundwater recharge facility on the northwest corner of Road 84 and Ave. 248 within the TID service area. The project involves the construction of a five-foot-deep basin, which will be served by the Serpa Ditch. It is anticipated that the project will add additional recharge infiltration capacity of approximately 25 AF per day based on bore-hole soil samples collected during the pre-construction phase. Four groundwater monitoring wells adjacent to the facility are included in the project.

Also slated is the Okieville Recharge Basin that involves the construction of a 20-acre recharge facility, and supporting infrastructure, adjacent and up-gradient of the disadvantaged community of Okieville (a DAC). The project’s purpose is two-fold: one, to increase the availability of wet-year recharge capacity and, two, to provide water quality benefits to the residents of Okieville. It is anticipated that the project, fed by an irrigation canal known as Packwood Creek, will add additional recharge infiltration capacity of approximately 10 AF per day. Application of high-quality Sierra watershed surface supplies dedicated to recharge up-gradient of the community should improve the quality of local groundwater pumped by the Okieville-Highland Acres Mutual Water Company well and delivery system. The District also intends to implement a monitoring program, including monitoring wells, to determine the empirical benefits of groundwater recharge on both the quantity and quality of groundwater available to the community.

Design of this project’s facilities commenced in January 2018 and construction is anticipated to be completed by August 2020 or later in that year. 

In addition, Fukuda said TID already has 1,300 acres of recharge basins in its district and is anticipating to purchase an additional 500 acres.

“That’s unheard of,” Fukuda said. 

Flood irrigation is also making a comeback in agricultural irrigation practices. Once the primary method of irrigation, farmers who flooded their crops with water were labeled water wasters during the state’s drought from 2012-2016. The backlash and public perception forced most farmers to switch to drip irrigation, which ultimately exacerbated sinking groundwater levels and dried up domestic wells because less water was being recharged on Valley farmland. 

“Flood irrigation wasn’t sexy at one point, but now its in newspapers and magazines as something we should do,” Fukuda said. “Now the most efficient method has both drip and flood irrigation.” 

In years when the GSA boundary is in overdraft, Fukuda said the plan directs the GSA board to enforce pumping reductions called management actions. These actions would include pumping restrictions such as each property being allotted 2.2-acre feet of water per year. 

Councilmember Greg Collins said he didn’t feel as if the GSA was moving fast enough on its recharge projects. He likened the groundwater overdraft to overdrafting a bank account. “The longer we wait, we are spending more money than we are putting into the account,” Collins said. “If we don’t make more money fast enough we will go bankrupt.”

Collins said the city could to more by adding more adding more recharge basins of its own. On paper, the City of Visalia is approaching sustainability due to its exchange agreement with TID. The City provides the irrigation district with about 11,000 acre feet of recycled water from its Water Reclamation Facility per year in exchange for 5,500 acre feet of surface water the city will use to recharge its groundwater. Another 2,000 acre feet of recycled water is used to irrigate 264 acres of city-owned land including Plaza Park, Valley Oak Golf Course and farmland on the east and west side of the city. 

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen said farmers had done their part and it was time for citizens to do theirs, again. He said he voted against easing residential water restrictions when the council added an outside watering day to three days per week a year ago.

“We stubbed our toe going from Stage 2 to Stage 1,” Nelsen said. “I see people hosing down driveways and watering on the wrong days. We lost that sense of urgency because this council let it happen.”

For only a dollar a month

According to Mid Kaweah’s GSP the Kaweah Subbasin, which encompasses most of Tulare County and small portions of Kings and Fresno counties, is currently using about 78,000 acre feet more water than is being recharged into the aquifer. The Kaweah Subbasin is bordered by the Kings River Subbasin to the north, the Tulare Lake Subbasin to the west, the Tulare River Subbasin to the south and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. And the Mid Kaweah is roughly bisected by Highway 99. 

Fukuda said the GSP will cost about $640,000 in annual costs and at least $50 million in capital projects. Fukuda said increasing the assessment on TID member farmers would not be financially viable and said there was a concern from their staff as to how to cover the costs. Visalia City Councilmember Phil Cox told Fukuda not to overthink it.

“An extra $1 per month per connection in the city would cover it,” Cox said. 

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