By Deb Murphy
Faced with the prospect of staggering fees levied by the California Water Resources Control Board if that agency steps in to develop groundwater sustainability in the Owens Valley Groundwater Basin, the Inyo Board of Supervisors gave Water Department head Bob Harrington a green light to begin public outreach and discussions toward a county-headed Groundwater Sustainability Agency.
The outreach/discussions do not preclude Tri Valley Groundwater Management District from forming a GSA for Mono County’s portion of the basin in Chalfant, Hammil and Benton valleys. To date, Tri Valley hasn’t decided the direction it will take.
Inyo’s GSA can also oversee that part of the Owens Valley basin that lies under Swall Meadows in Mono County.
Harrington gave the Board and a full house at Tuesday’s meeting a taste of proposed state-levied fees: The City of Bishop would be looking at $72,300 in fees for the roughly 1,800 acre-feet pumped per year; farmers growing alfalfa on 160 acres with 5 acre-feet per acre would pay $32,100.
Individual domestic wells will not be impacted by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, though they have to endure “de minimus” status defined as “too trivial or minor to merit consideration.”
GSAs have both power and flexibility. According to Harrington, GSAs can set fees and pumping limits, require monitoring, define minimums for de minimus wells as part of the plan. There is flexibility in how stakeholders have input – either as a voting board member or a non-voting participant. The range of possible public entities able to form a GSA includes water agencies, community service districts, cities with counties the default agency. In Inyo, the potential cost of managing an agency eliminates most of those possibles. According to Supervisor Matt Kingsley, the Indian Wells basin GSA, of which Inyo is a part, estimated it would take $500,000 to run the agency.
Harrington told the Board grant funding will be available to develop a GSP, but probably not for actually operating the agency itself.
While the SGMA was passed in 2014, the state is still coming out with details. Harrington said the department had recently received a 60-page list of what has to be included in the GSPs.
Another Damocles sword hanging over Inyo is the timeline for agencies to incorporate that 60-page list. Agencies have to notify the state of the intent to form a GSA and submit required materials by June 30, 2017. But that date should be backed off by 90 days, the timeline for resolving any overlapping boundary disputes with other notifying agencies.
Once a GSA is official, it has until June 30, 2020, or 2022 in the case of the Ovens Valley basin, a medium priority basin, to submit its plan that guarantees sustainability by 2042.
Harrington’s recommended timeline would begin immediately starting with meetings with other local agency staffs and identifying interested parties and beneficial users in the basin. The next step would be a series of public outreach meetings. By February, Harrington intends to define how user interests will be considered, have agreements and boundary maps developed as well as individual board approvals. By late winter of 2017, the County would hold a public hearing and submit notification materials to the DWR.
So what about the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s role? Geographically, the department manages roughly half of the entire Owens Valley basin.
SGMA exempts adjudicated districts, those whose water rights have been handed down by court order. The portion of the Owens Valley basin under land owned by LADWP is regulated by the Long Term Water Agreement but isn’t technically adjudicated. However, the County and the City lobbied Sacramento to exempt that portion of the basin from SGMA.
Harrington has maintained the agreement sets the bar higher than SGMA. The state legislation’s goals focus on chronic lowering of groundwater levels, significant reductions in groundwater storage and degradation of water quality. The agreement addresses negative environmental impacts of groundwater pumping in the valley.
Valley water-watchers see this relationship between the agreement and SGMA as a win-win. The agreement requires mitigation for negative impacts but reversing those impacts has been problematic.
According to Harrington, LADWP will still be required to submit reports to the DWR to assure it is in compliance with the agreement. Disputes between the County and LADWP over compliance usually results in a drawn-out arbitration process.