Farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley didn’t stop over-pumping groundwater when doing so contaminated local water supplies with arsenic, and they didn’t stop when the valley’s floor began sinking underneath them, by a foot per year in some places. State officials have long hoped to stop them with regulations—and last week, they decided that several local regulatory plans weren’t strong enough.
On Thursday, California’s Department of Water Resources rejected a half dozen local groundwater plans from some of the valley’s most productive agricultural regions. The agency said the plans failed to sufficiently address over-pumping, land subsidence and drinking water safety.
The San Joaquin Valley, a flat expanse of irrigated desert and tilled grassland that’s twice the size of Massachusetts, is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Many of the region’s farmers have been over-pumping groundwater for years. Today, the valley’s aquifers are critically depleted, and the recent historic rains and record-breaking snowpack have done little to replenish them.
The state is trying to fix this through its Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which has been gradually implemented since 2014. In the past few years, over a hundred local agencies have developed groundwater sustainability plans and submitted them to the state for approval. Last year, the Department of Water Resources rejected 12 of these plans, then gave local agencies an opportunity to revise and resubmit them.
Of those 12 revised plans, six were deemed “inadequate” by state officials on Thursday. In their evaluation of one, state officials noted that the land in that part of the valley was subsiding so fast that it already had sunk below the level the plan would establish. All six plans also failed to sufficiently protect domestic wells, which many rural Californians rely on—and which are increasingly going dry due to over-pumping.
“The rejected plans would mostly harm low-income people of color reliant on shallow domestic wells or community wells for their only source of water,” said Tien Tran, a policy advocate for Community Water Center, in a press release. “That was unacceptable.”
The state’s Water Resources Control Board will oversee another round of revisions to the rejected plans, and local agencies will have at least a year to fix them. In a press conference on Thursday, Natalie Stork, a Water Board official, said that the state may further intervene if local agencies fail to solve their plans’ problems. In a worst-case scenario, the Water Board could take them over and impose groundwater restrictions of its own.
The state’s decision received a mixed response from water advocacy groups, who argued that some of the plans approved by the state weren’t much better than the ones it rejected.
“We are pleased to see that DWR is taking this critical step to reject inadequate groundwater management plans,” said Ngodoo Atume, a water policy analyst for Clean Water Action, in a statement. “At the same time, we are disheartened by DWR’s approval of some plans that allow domestic and public supply wells to fail as groundwater over pumping continues.”