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County water district will control water basins as state takeover looms

County agrees to let the county water district act as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency, but there is concern that the state will eventually take control away
Iris Priestaf said groundwater law is complicated and cities and counties need to figure out how they work.

The Board of Supervisors discussed May 9 the possibility of forming a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) to retain local control over decisions regarding the use of the resource found under San Benito County.

Barbara Thompson, interim county counsel, said the idea of such an agency was enacted by the state legislature and the county would normally have until June to form an agency. She said the San Benito County Water District elected to become the GSA for the three water basins in the county, which gives the county 90 days to act. A public hearing was originally scheduled for May 23 for the board to become familiar with the law and determine a course of action, but that was canceled by the end of the meeting.

Thompson recommended that the county should not act on its own to form a GSA because of the staff time required to do so, along with the lack of technical expertise with organizing a GSA, as well as associated costs that could be acquired through grant funding.

“Part of the reason I wanted to bring this to the board is if the county does not act and loses the ability to get involved with the issue, the San Benito County Water District would be the GSA for the county,” she said. “So the board can choose on May 23 to adopt the resolution to file for GSA and enter into negotiations with the water district to determine how that can be accomplished.”

She said the water district has had the responsibility of managing groundwater in the county and if the county does not make a decision, it will delegate its authority to the water district to handle the GSA function.

Jeff Cattaneo, general manager for the water district, introduced Iris Priestaf, president of Todd Groundwater, to give the board the state’s perspective on groundwater, and said he would then tell them what the water district has been doing for more than 100 years and what its future plans are. Priestaf told the board she was acting as a consultant for the water district and was familiar with the county’s groundwater issues, having contributed to its 2035 General Plan.

She explained that her company had been involved in the development of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and that the state realizes that overdrafts of some groundwater basins will continue unabated and that is not sustainable.

“Something needs to be done, so water agencies, the state, the scientific community, cities’ and counties’ land use planning came together to work on this law, which was signed by the governor in 2014,” Priestaf said. “Since that time, it’s evolving rapidly and since we’ve never done this before we’re all learning as we do it.”

She described the act as landmark legislation that  provides a framework for sustainable management of groundwater for 517 basins in the state, of which around 127 have been designated medium and high priority by the state.

“The idea was local control,” Priestaf said. “The state is going to be involved, and at this point, the role of the Department of Water Resources, so far, has been supportive with data and techniques. Later, they will be regulators and there will be a role for state intervention. This is new regulation that has deadlines and requirements that has 57 pages. That didn’t explain it well enough, so in the regulations to do these groundwater sustainability plans they had to come out with another 40 pages.

“If this is not done properly, the state can step in, declare a groundwater basin, and then they will come—how should I say this—to assist you toward sustainability. First of all, GSAs must be formed and they must cover groundwater basins that are high and medium priority. And then they must prepare groundwater sustainability plans.”

There is a need, Priestaf said, to study land-use plans in terms of a water budget, and how a sustainable use criteria will affect land use and property owners. She said GSAs have a long list of additional powers and authorities. One, in particular, is that in order to assure groundwater sustainability it may require regulation of the pumping of groundwater.

“The GSA could regulate groundwater extraction, register production wells, impose spacing requirements, add meters, require annual reporting, and monitor compliance and enforcement,” she said.

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer asked if this would include household wells. She said there is a rule concerning very small wells that don’t have to comply. Muenzer asked if the law supersedes water rights. She said that it does not.

Muenzer saw the irony, and questioned, “But you’re putting meters on them and regulating. How is it now taking (water) if you’re going down the path of regulating someone using what is their right to have?”

Priestaf responded, “I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion—“

“In the courts?” Muenzer interrupted. 

“Probably,” she said. “In some basins, where there’s a shortage, there may be a need for regulation. The whole idea, though, is local control in the community, in the county, in the water district. If you all have to cut back, you’re going to be in a room and work it out together. It may need to be regulated, but it has to be consistent with the General Plan.”

Priestaf described the law as  complex and that communities need to work through it. Supervisor Anthony Botelho wondered why a district would not just buy water somewhere and transfer it to other areas of the state.

“Are we going to see water districts purchasing water to replenish their overdraft problems and driving up water prices?” he asked.

Cattaneo fielded the question.

“You’re always going to see water agencies looking for more water,” he said. “As far as long-term contracts where you can buy water, there are very few of those available. Pretty much all the water in California is spoken for now. Most of those agencies you’re talking about are already importing water. On a mass scale, you probably won’t see it simply because the water is not available. Ours is secured until 2027. That’s when our contract renewal comes up. It’s basically automatic that it will be renewed for another 30 years.”

Cattaneo told the board that while the state is mandating water districts collaborate with land-use agencies to manage groundwater, water quality and wastewater, the county water district has been doing just that for years.

“We don’t need the state to come in and tell us what to do because we’re already doing it,” he said. “Since the 60s, the water district has been preparing annual groundwater reports that indicate how much water is available and the condition of the basin is.”

He said the district had submitted the application to become a GSA for the county because it was the best agency to do the job, not to mention the fact that no other agency expressed an interest to take it on.

“We have the resources, we have the data, we have a major portion of what’s going to be required in the groundwater sustainability plan already done in the groundwater management plan that was updated in 2003,” he said. “We’re a step ahead of most agencies already and because we’re a medium-priority basin, we don’t have to have it done until 2022, but my plan is to have it done by 2020.”

The bottom line, Cattaneo said, is managing water fairly so everybody gets their share. He said the district has no intention of interfering with the county. When Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz brought up the beleaguered Tres Pinos Water District, Cattaneo responded, “I can’t help you there.”

Botelho asked Cattaneo if there were a practical purpose of having a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the county and the water district.

“Only if you thrive on additional layers of government,” Cattaneo quipped.

Botelho said he did not think an MOU was needed. Cattaneo told him the water district has never attempted to control growth and has worked with the Planning Department for many years to advise it of any water supply issues that might come from new development. He said the district has never injected itself in the process to tell the county it should not approve a project.

The only public comment came from Hollister resident Marty Richman, who cautioned the board that this was just the first step being taken for the state to take over groundwater management.

“The word ‘unless’ is already here,” he said. “It’s all yours unless we don’t like what you’re doing and in that case we’re going to come down here and help you. The lie here is ‘we’re not going to take any of your rights away.’ The truth is, this is Step 1 and as we go along they will pull, one by one, all the restrictions. They understand it will be fought out in court and my guess, knowing how the California Supreme Court sees things, sooner or later this will be a state-run operation and it will have the final say on how you can use the water.”

The only decisions made by the end of the meeting were to draft a letter to the water district acknowledging that the district would function as the GSA, and to cancel the May 23 public meeting.

John Chadwell (John Chadwell)

John Chadwell is freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to:


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