Carpinteria Valley groundwater basin

Four thousand acre-feet of water are consumed annually from the Carpinteria Valley groundwater basin.

Designation triggers formation of new agency to monitor use

Carpinteria Valley Water District got notice on May 18 that the State of California classified the local groundwater basin as a high-priority resource, a designation that compels the formation of a local Groundwater Service Agency to create a sustainability plan for the supply. CVWD General Manager Bob McDonald said the new classification opens a 60-day window for public comment on the finding, following which CVWD will likely form the GSA. A GSA has authority to oversee water usage from designated groundwater basins and qualifies for state grants to fund sustainability efforts.

McDonald said the process of forming an agency and setting local groundwater management rules encourages public input and involvement by stakeholders who rely on groundwater for home and agricultural use. “We would not be looking to be a draconian enforcement agency,” McDonald said. “We would implement a plan agreed upon by stakeholders to achieve sustainability.”

In response to the ongoing drought, state legislators passed a package of three bills in 2014 known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to better monitor groundwater resources. Each groundwater basin in the state was assessed and prioritized. According to the law, medium and high priority basins, based on a point system, must either form local GSAs or have the state Department of Water Resources monitor the basins.

McDonald said it was no surprise that Carpinteria Valley’s basin was going to be reclassified as high priority. In the initial assessment in 2014, the state erroneously calculated that 1,000 acre-feet of water were used annually from the Carpinteria Valley groundwater basin. Actually, 4,000 acre-feet are consumed annually. When the four-fold error was corrected, Carpinteria’s groundwater basin bumped up from low to high priority.

In some areas of the state, usage from groundwater basins has been historically lawless. Locally, CVWD has already collected data using aerial land-use assessment to estimate groundwater usage to take account of the resource. The information has been compiled in annual reports required by legislation stemming from the drought of the early 1990s. Unlike the 2014 legislation, McDonald said, the laws from the 1990s were “largely voluntary and toothless.” Still, CVWD has a head start in groundwater basin monitoring due to compliance for the past 30 years with the earlier legislation.

New GSAs and enforcement of groundwater sustainability measures represent a sea change in the treatment of the resource in California. Groundwater rights have always been treated as property rights. The advent of GSAs and closer monitoring of usage has the potential to diminish landowners’ ability to exploit the resource below their properties.

“Groundwater had no safeguards. Landowners could just drill a well and start pumping,” McDonald said.  

At the height of the drought, there were many anecdotal reports of water trucks leaving Carpinteria. The suspicion was that landowners were pumping well-water from Carpinteria’s relatively healthy groundwater basin and selling it for profit to customers in other water districts who had their water use limited due to drought restrictions.

State findings about the Carpinteria Valley Water District are online at Public comments on the report can be posted at before July 18.

McDonald said that CVWD will likely form the GSA, but other area agencies like Santa Barbara County could potentially express interest in operating the GSA. If no local agency forms the GSA, then the state Water Resources Board would have authority to conduct an assessment and enact a sustainability plan.

After the initial public comment period on the reprioritization ends in July, if CVWD forms the local GSA, McDonald said the initial steps will be to conduct public outreach and workshops to encourage stakeholder participation in the development of sustainability rules.

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