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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 25th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 17, Issue 12

Groundwater basin laws raise concerns in Santa Barbara County

By BRENNA SWANSTON

You’ve probably heard: Year five of the drought is upon us, and it’s bringing along a flurry of state-mandated water conservation measures. California Gov. Jerry Brown is signing executive orders, the California Department of Food and Agriculture is pushing for efficient irrigation systems, and the California Water Commission is passing groundwater basin regulations.


GROUNDWATER
Agriculture comprises 95 percent of the water demand from Cuyama Valley’s groundwater basin and 75 percent of the demand from the Santa Ynez River Valley basin.
PHOTO BY BRENNA SWANSTON

But for the water-reliant agriculture industry, stricter water regulations can increase an already heavy burden—and in Santa Barbara County, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in particular is raising eyebrows.

The current drought is stressing groundwater resources in California’s agricultural regions more than ever before, according to groundwater hydrology experts. The SGMA seeks to relieve some of that stress by laying out the framework for local regions to best manage their groundwater. On May 18, the Water Commission passed a set of emergency regulations to help regional management teams—called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs)—manage their basins in sustainable ways.

According to Department of Water Resources (DWR) Communications Manager Lauren Hersh, the new regulations cover data collection, reporting requirements, descriptions of historical groundwater conditions and current groundwater conditions, and the development of water budgets. They aim to help each basin’s management come up with sustainable practices for their groundwater resource, and ultimately draft a groundwater management plan.

“Basically, there are two key principles from the groundwater legislation,” Hersh said. “First: Groundwater is best managed at the local or regional level, and local agencies should have the tools they need to sustainably manage their resources.”

Second, she said: If the local regions fail to manage their basins according to the SGMA, the state will step in.

If farmers and landowners are involved in the creation of their regional groundwater management plans, the agricultural industry could see some serious benefits in the long run.

Key word: “if.”

Claire Wineman, president of the Santa Barbara County Grower-Shipper Association, said local growers are concerned about the potential underrepresentation of agricultural stakeholders in the decision-making process for groundwater basin management.

These basins make up a crucial component of California agriculture. According to the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development’s Long Range Planning Division, agriculture accounts for more than 95 percent of the water used from the Cuyama Valley basin and approximately 75 percent of the water demand from the Santa Ynez River Valley basin, both of which are subject to the SGMA.

If Santa Barbara County farmers end up underrepresented in the management of those basins, it could have a heavy impact on the county’s agricultural industry.

Hersh said the DWR chose to delegate basin management to local regions rather than create statewide regulations because California’s too large to fall under one broad outline of groundwater sustainability. 

“It’s a highly technical and complex task,” Hersh said. “California has such varied geology and hydrology, we believe the regulations are flexible enough so that they can address each particular basin’s specific needs.”

Under the SGMA, the regional groundwater management teams are required to regulate groundwater basins designated by the DWR as medium or high priority. Once the agencies are formed, they’ll come up with individualized plans for the sustainable management of each of their basins.

In Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez River Valley, San Antonio Creek Valley, and Cuyama Valley groundwater basins are classified by the DWR as medium priority and are thus subject to the SGMA.

But who will be represented in the agencies for those basins?

Hersh said the interest groups represented in GSAs will vary depending on who’s responsible for and interested in each particular basin. Ideally, everyone with interests in a basin will coordinate to form the GSA that best reflects their community—but this isn’t strictly regulated.

“In some areas, a county may be the sole GSA,” Hersh said. In other areas, where groups with stakes in a basin overlap, an agency may comprise multiple groups.

Wineman said some growers have raised “preliminary concerns” about whether or not the agriculture industry will be taken into account in the formation of local GSAs.

Her concerns are “preliminary” because so far, the DWR has not received any GSA formation notifications for groundwater basins in Santa Barbara County. In fact, areas using SGMA-regulated basins have another year to form their official GSAs—meaning there’s time to ensure the agriculture industry is properly represented.

Wineman’s take, for the time being: “We’re hopeful, but concerned.”

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at bswanston@santamariasun.com.




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