SGMA: These are four simple letters, but they stand for regulations that pose a monumental challenge to growers and water authorities around the state.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, was the topic of conversation among key players in the Kaweah Subbasin water scene earlier this year at a conference.

Already, they said, SGMA is affecting land values and changing the business of farming.

“Honestly, farming’s going to have to make decisions about how they best utilize their land with their groundwater supply,” said Mark Larson, general manager of the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District.

The organizations that will figure out how to implement SGMA locally around the state are Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, called GSAs for short.

“It’s all happening relatively fast, these new agencies have enormous responsibilities down the road,” said Paul Hendrix, manager at Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency, seen in the picture above. “These GSAs were told they had to form, literally overnight.”

The impending regulations are meant to target a variety of problems including the rapidly sinking depth of groundwater, Hendrix said. “We know there’s a problem. It’s particularly acute in the drought years,” Hendrix said. “That valley that had over 100 agencies form, it’s really one big bathtub. Over time this is an area that’s interconnected with its groundwater supply.”

When water is drawn down, it leads to sinking ground as well.

“Subsidence is a big issue here in the San Joaquin Valley,” Hendrix told growers. “One of the big subsidence areas in the San Joaquin Valley is southwest of Tulare.”

The water restrictions that are expected to come with SGMA are serious business, Hendrix said, and could lead to upward of half a million acres in the San Joaquin Valley that will be temporarily or permanently fallowed.

That’s already been priced into real estate values in many areas, he said, presenting the chart below that shows different trends for different lands, depending on water supplies. If it does happen, it will depend on water efficiency or “crop per drop,” something growers have worked on optimizing for years.

He said that in Kern County, a realtor reported that values have been dropping by a sizeable amount for land that’s dependent on groundwater, by 30% or so in 2016 and 2017.

So, how will the GSAs start taking action?

“Each GSA with its governing board…must adopt a groundwater sustainability plan it will have to turn in to the state,” Hendrix told growers. “Whether it’s through meters or indirect measurement, it has to be done and given to the state, at least on an aggregate basis.”

He said some GSAs may look to do voluntary land retirement programs.

Beyond measures to minimize pumping, he said there will be efforts to capture more water in wet years.

The good news, he said, is all this will not happen overnight. By January 2020, these plans have to be vetted publicly, voted on by boards, and submitted to the state.

A similar view of the situation was shared by Michael Hagman, executive director for the East Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

“The challenge with SGMA is that it’s asking us to herd cats and come up with solutions,” Hagman said. “It’s our biggest fear, that we’re not getting stakeholders involved. The challenge for people is they don’t know how they can help—what is being attempted, how it’s going to be attempted.”

“We need to look each other in the eye and say, ‘How are we going to solve this problem?’” he told the crowd.

Hagman said water budgets for basins wouldn’t be set by the state, but would be set locally, which could soften the blow to agriculture.

“The law is tough but we’ve got to have something make us sustainable in the long run,” he said. “It’s going to push us to make difficult choices.”

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