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Severe storms not enough to recharge California's groundwater

Severe storms not enough to recharge California's groundwater
Severe storms not enough to recharge California's groundwater 02:52

SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY - The severe winter storms have pulled parts of California out of the drought, but while reservoirs are refilled, the state's groundwater is still running dry.

The rain and snow have been promising for the here and now.

"It is going to mean more water allocations for cities and growers this year," said UC Davis Professor of Cooperative Extension, a groundwater expert. "But if next year is going to be a very dry winter, then we are very quickly back to where we were last year." 

The U.S. Drought Monitor released new data on the country's drought conditions. In November 2022, most of California was in the extreme or exceptional drought category. As of March 2, 2023, all of California is out of the red, but water experts warn this data still does not mean the drought is over. 

"We have taken more water out of these aquifer systems than we have put in, so they have been overdrafted," said Harter. "The account balances have continually been going down." 

San Joaquin almond farmer from Travaille and Phippan Partner David Phippan told CBS13 he only pumps groundwater as a last resort. Instead, his farm gets water from the Stanislaus River. He said thanks to the wet weather he will have enough surface water for his crops this year. 

"It means we will not have to rely on those wells that I thought was always our backup," said Phippan. "I thought if we couldn't get irrigation district water, we would use well water." 

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) determined on Thursday that six Central Valley sub-basins are still in overdraft. The Delta-Mendota Subbasin is one of the six. It is in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Madera, and San Benito counties.

The six sub-basins will need to fix their sustainability plans before the state steps in with its own restrictive measures. 

"Pumpers will have to get meters onto their wells, and they would be charged for the water they are extracting," Harter told CBS13. 

The sub-basins in overdraft need to make fixes like looking at the connection between groundwater and surface water plus make a plan that prevents wells from running dry. 

"They might not be able to farm at some point, or they will need to have dry land crops which would have very low values," said Phippan. 

The state will not step in right away. The DWR will first give a 90-day notice for a public probationary hearing. Then the subbasin will have a year of probation from that point to fix the water plan. If the subbasin still does not meet the state's goals, the State Water Board will implement an interim plan.

The DWR recommended approval of groundwater sustainability plans for the following six basins that were determined critically overdrafted:

  • Eastern San Joaquin Subbasin in San Joaquin County
  • Merced Subbasin in Merced County
  • Cuyama Basin in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Kern counties
  • Paso Robles Subbasin in San Luis Obispo County
  • Westside Subbasin in Fresno and Kings counties
  • Kings Subbasin in Fresno County

The DWR said these six basins have inadequate plans:

  • Delta-Mendota Subbasin in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Madera, and San Benito counties
  • Chowchilla Subbasin in Madera and Merced counties
  • Kaweah Subbasin in Tulare and Kings counties
  • Tule Subbasin in Tulare County
  • Tulare Lake Subbasin in Kings County
  • Kern Subbasin in Kern County

The Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are required to implement the plans as soon as they are adopted locally, even if the basin ends up under state intervention.

The goal is for each California basin to reach groundwater sustainability by 2040. 

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