Discussions are underway in Kings County to form new government agencies to oversee the landmark groundwater sustainability law California lawmakers passed in 2014.
The agencies will have to be formed by 2018, and will have to submit approved plans by 2020 that — for the first time — explain how the Kings River basin will reverse the long-term groundwater overdraft that has defined the area for decades.
The definition of overdraft is simple: Pumping out more groundwater than is coming into the basin from runoff surface water. Somehow, under the new law, long-term overdraft has to end by 2040.
There’s a major question looming on the not-too-distant horizon: How much Kings County farmland will have to be taken out of production to meet the sustainability requirement?
Kings County Supervisor Joe Neves thinks the loss could be 25 percent to 50 percent.
“It’ll shrink quite a bit,” he said. “It’s dependent on how much surface water we can get into the county.”
Others aren’t quite willing to make such a grim assessment at this stage. They point out that that the 2040 deadline is a long way off.
“We don’t have any idea what this thing is going to be,” said Dino Giacomazzi, a Hanford grower and dairy operator.
The basic outlines of the task ahead are a lot easier to appreciate than the devilish details that have yet to be determined.
The new groundwater management agencies tasked with implementation will do one of two things: Either bring in more water than is coming in now, or cut groundwater pumping back from current levels.
Ideally for Kings’ agricultural economy, new water storage projects outside the county will be built so that water managers can bring more in. But because the political climate in California is trending against building new dams, Neves figures the ax is going to fall mostly on groundwater pumping.
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If his 25 percent to 50 percent acreage cutback proves accurate, the amount of land taken out of production would dwarf recent acreage losses from drought.
From 2012 to 2014 — three of the driest years on record — Kings County’s harvested crop land area declined by 13.3 percent, according to the Kings County Crop Reports for those years.
And the longer the drought continues, the harder groundwater sustainability will be to achieve.
But drought and the anti-dam climate aren’t the only factors making future Kings County surface water inputs uncertain.
Environmental restrictions on water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta and a century-old water rights system that favors growers north of Kings County with more senior water rights also come into play.
The picture that emerges for Neves is a big monkey wrench thrown into an agricultural machine kept humming in large part by unregulated groundwater pumping.
Even in wet years, there’s been slight overdraft. In a drought year like 2014, the overdraft was much, much higher.
Neves said that if the state were to require sustainability in a future drought year — only as much being pumped out as comes in — as much as 90 percent of Kings County’s farmland acreage would have to be fallowed.
He and others are hoping that the “safe yield” amount the state eventually comes up with — the amount a basin can suck out of the ground each year without creating long-term overdraft — will be based on a multi-year average that combines enough wet years with dry years to even things out.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how [the California Department of Water Resources] wants to do that equation,” he said. “It could be pretty scary.”
“There’s no fix, and no easy solution,” said Steve Schweizer, deputy agricultural commissioner/sealer for Kings County. “I can’t imagine farming staying the same.”