Note: Lana Cohen is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for TMV & KZYX. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Lana’s work here or email [email protected]. Contact Cohen at LCohen@mendovoice.com. TMV maintains editorial control.
MENDOCINO Co., 10/16/20 — Historically, in California, if someone had a well, or access to an aquifer on their property, they could take as much water out of it as they wanted, to irrigate agricultural land, for drinking, or whatever else they needed it for. Currently, there is no government authority that can track or limit groundwater use. Soon, that will change.
In 2014, a state law was enacted that requires local governments in areas with potential for groundwater overdraft to establish a regulatory plan to manage groundwater sustainably for years to come. The Ukiah Valley groundwater basin is one of those areas. Right now, the Ukiah Valley Sustainable Groundwater Management Agency (SGMA) is writing up a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) for the basin. The plan will regulate groundwater in the Ukiah Valley basin for the first time ever, and will define how water is managed in and near Redwood Valley, Calpella, and Ukiah for perpetuity.
So why is groundwater being managed now, anyway?
California started regulating surface water in 1914, when it gave state water boards the right to issue surface water permits and manage how it was used. But it wasn’t until a century had passed, when the historic drought of 2011 to 2017 drove the state to take action, that the state legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires local governments to regulate groundwater, ensure that the basins are sustainably managed, and provide good quality water for years to come.
In January 2014, 60% of the state was experiencing an extreme drought. The drought led to economic losses, high tree mortality, increased wildfire risk, and increased pumping of groundwater. In turn, the increased pumping of groundwater resulted in overdrafting — when water is removed faster than it is replenished.
The impacts of overdraft were hard to miss. Most notably, overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley caused the land to sink almost as much as a foot per year in some places. Other consequences included seawater intrusion, degradation of groundwater quality, reduction in groundwater storage, and severe lowering of groundwater levels.
In 2015, former Governor Jerry Brown signed SGMA (pronounced sigma) into law, presumably to avoid a repeat of these events and to protect groundwater for future generations The act requires localities with tenuous groundwater situations to create a long term, sustainable groundwater plan. The basin below the Ukiah Valley is one of those areas.
The act relies on local oversight and management. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the state listed 94 of California’s groundwater basins as medium or high priority, requiring them to create groundwater sustainability plans. Those basins account for 98 percent of groundwater pumping and provide water to 25 million California residents, or 83 percent of the population. If the local agencies fail to comply with SGMA and provide a plan that will avoid, among other things, overdraft, subsidence, and degrading groundwater quality, the state will take over.
The Ukiah basin is a medium priority groundwater basin. Priority was determined by the following eight factors, according to a document from the California Natural Resources Agency and the state Department of Water Resources Sustainable Groundwater Management Program.
- The population overlying the basin or subbasin.
- The rate of current and projected growth of the population overlying the basin or subbasin.
- The number of public supply wells that draw from the basin or subbasin.
- The total number of wells that draw from the basin or subbasin.
- The irrigated acreage overlying the basin or subbasin.
- The degree to which persons overlying the basin or subbasin rely on groundwater as their primary source of water.
- Any documented impacts on the groundwater within the basin or subbasin, including overdraft,
subsidence, saline intrusion, and other water quality degradation.
- Any other information determined to be relevant by the department, including adverse impacts on local habitat and local streamflows
Since the law was passed, Mendocino County officials have been working to implement SGMA. In 2017, the county and local stakeholders created the Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which is in charge of regulating the Ukiah basins groundwater.
The agency includes:
- The County of Mendocino (Carre Brown)
- City of Ukiah (Douglas F. Crane)
- Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation District (Alfred White)
- Upper Russian River Water Agency (Richard Mack)
- Tribal Representative (Brandi Brown)
- Agricultural Representative (Zachary Robinson)
There is also a technical advisory committee:
- County of Mendocino (Glenn McGourty)
- City of Ukiah (Sean White)
- Russian River Flood Control (Elizabeth Salomone)
- Tribal Representative (Sonny Elliot Jr.)
- Agricultural Representative (Levi Paulin)
- Sonoma Water (Don Seymour)
- Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (Mike Webster)
- California Land Stewardship Institute (Laurel Marcus)
After years of research and data collection, the agency is finally starting to write the plan.
Using computer modeling, they are making educated predictions about the future to create a plan that will provide a sustainable groundwater supply in the Ukiah area into the future.
Why does this matter?
A stable groundwater system could help cushion the blow of droughts as climate change continues to make California’s weather more extreme, with hotter, longer, drier summers, and winters marked by heavy but infrequent rainfall.
Additionally, how the Ukiah basins water is managed could dictate what the future is like in much of inland Mendocino County – how much water is available for future generations, what the land can be used for, how much water runs in free flowing rivers, and much more.
These decisions that the Groundwater Sustainability Agency makes may not only impact the Ukiah Water Basin, which includes areas around Redwood Valley, Ukiah, and Calpella, but the entire Russian River Watershed, which is 2,447 square miles and stretches from Redwood Valley to the Sonoma-Mendocino County Line. Although the groundwater sustainability agency only has jurisdiction over the Ukiah groundwater basin, the Russian River watershed is interconnected and cannot be physically spliced up the way it is politically. So management in Ukiah could, in some way, affect the 360,000 people that rely on the watershed, endangered fish species, businesses and large agricultural areas.
How will groundwater be managed?
Essentially, the only way to sustainably manage groundwater is to increase supply or reduce demand. As the Groundwater Sustainability Agency is still in the planning phase, they do not yet know how they will manage groundwater. But, some management ideas that the agency mentioned during their first public meeting were limits on pumping, credits for people who pump less, and change in land use, among others.
When will it be implemented?
The Ukiah basin is considered a medium priority basin, which means that the Sustainable Groundwater Agency must begin implementing their groundwater sustainability plan by June 2022.
The Sustainable Groundwater Agency is writing the plan now, which they will release to the public one chapter at a time. They must submit the plan to the California Department of Water Resources by January 2022. There will be opportunity for public engagement on the issue during monthly zoom meetings. The next meeting will take place Thursday, November 12 from 1:30 pm to 3 pm.
New regulations and restrictions on groundwater use will not all be implemented at once. Rather, they will slowly be incorporated over 18 years on a kind of extended trial basis. Every five years, there will be an opportunity for the public to comment and for the agency to alter the groundwater sustainability plan.