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State finds deficiencies in Paso and Cuyama basin plans

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The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) published its first reviews of local groundwater sustainability plans as part of a 2014 state law regulating groundwater—and two Central Coast aquifers are included in the initial wave of feedback.

DWR reviewed and found "deficiencies" in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin and Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin sustainability plans—declining to give final approval to either.

In separate letters about the basins, DWR identified issues ranging from a lack of discussion about impacts to shallow and domestic wells, to a lack of planning for surface waters, like creeks and rivers. Six points of deficiencies were listed in all—two for Paso and four for Cuyama.

DWR said that the deficiencies could "preclude the department's approval" of the 20-year plans, but added that the letters are "intended to initiate consultation between the department" and local officials before a final determination is made in January 2022.

Under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, if DWR rejects locally developed sustainability plans, the state can step in and manage those basins.

Paso and Cuyama stakeholders told New Times that DWR's feedback is appreciated and they are now analyzing what changes are necessary. The Paso Basin Cooperative Committee has a board meeting on July 21 and the Cuyama Basin Sustainability Agency has one in August where officials will discuss the letters.

"We certainly have work to do," said Matt Turrentine, a Shandon farmer with Grapevine Capital Partners and board member on the Paso Basin Cooperative Committee. "They made some great points and fair criticism. I'm fully confident we will revise the plan and resubmit."

In both reviews, DWR criticized the target groundwater levels established for the basins—asking local officials for more specificity and discussion about why those levels were picked and what their impacts could be on different water users, especially on shallower and domestic wells.

In Paso, for example, its plan cites 2017 groundwater levels as the objective level, and 30 feet below 2017 levels as a red flag minimum level. DWR's letter argued that if the plan finds it acceptable for groundwater levels to decline, given that some shallow wells in Paso have already gone dry due to the basin's overpumping, "it is reasonable to assume that additional wells may be impacted during implementation of the plan."

"As written, [the plan] implies that some unspecified level of impacts to domestic wells of average depth would be acceptable and provides no detail of expected impacts to domestic wells of less-than-average depth or to other groundwater users," DWR's letter read.

Turrentine called those points "fair criticism."

"We need to more clearly enunciate—what are the undesirable results we're trying to avoid? And how do these thresholds avoid them?" Turrentine said.

In Cuyama, its basin plan received similar critiques on its groundwater targets, but the DWR also found gaps in how the plan will address water quality, surface water, and the overdraft in certain basin regions.

Jim Beck, executive director of the Cuyama Basin Sustainability Agency, said that Cuyama's sustainability plan was developed with an understanding that it'd likely need to be revised due to data gaps.

"The Cuyama basin started this process a little bit behind the other basins in the state on data," Beck said. "Our plan identified the deficiencies in data collection and data analysis ... [and acknowledged that it will be] modified based on a better understanding of the basin."

Beck said his staff is working with DWR in the coming weeks to get better clarity on what revisions to the plan are expected or required.

"Right now, we're just beginning the process of understand exactly what DWR's concerns are and what's the best way to address them," Beck said. "Certainly our expectation is to address all the concerns with DWR prior to January when we get into the formal review date. We're optimistic we can address those concerns." Δ

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