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Disadvantaged Communities Claim A Stake In State Groundwater Overhaul

Kerry Klein
Valley Public Radio
Residents of Tombstone Territory, pictured here, and other disadvantaged communities are pushing for greater participation in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Jovita Torres Romo lives in a grayish bungalow surrounded by cactus and succulents and strung with Christmas lights. It’s located on one of the handful of streets that make up Tombstone Territory, an unincorporated Fresno County community that’s been her home for 30 years. It’s quiet, except for the few days a week when her young grandchildren come over to watch cartoons and play in the backyard. “I like it here,” she says through a Spanish interpreter. “I raised five children here, they grew up in this house, and I like living outside the city in the county.”

A tiny community on the outskirts of the City of Sanger, Tombstone is a bellwether for groundwater issues—one of the reasons Governor Gavin Newsom chose the community as the location to sign the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act into law earlier this year. Most of the community’s 40 or so homes get their drinking water from shallow domestic wells, which can be vulnerable to both aquifer contaminants and falling groundwater levels. “We began to have problems about four years ago during the drought,” Torres Romo says, when her well and many others ran dry. “Before, the water was shallower, but now it's getting deeper and deeper and those that are regulating that water aren't preventing that problem.”

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
In July 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund into law outside the Tombstone Territory home of Jovita Torres Romo, far left.

It took three months for Torres Romo’s family to pay the thousands of dollars necessary to deepen their well—three months of sharing hoses with neighbors who still had water, three months of lugging heavy water buckets around the house, and all while Torres Romo continued watching her grandkids and managing her own osteoporosis. She wonders what could happen if groundwater levels continue to drop. “I’m worried that our wells are going to go dry again, our water is going to go away and we're going to need to drill new wells and pay even more,” she says.

Other Tombstone residents worry, too. They’re hoping some solutions may lie with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a sweeping state law that aims to overhaul California’s groundwater use and accountability. That’s why Torres Romo and a handful of her neighbors recently attended a community meeting on the law. 

Held in Spanish, the meeting addressed the mechanics of SGMA: That it divides the state’s major groundwater basins into hundreds of small subbasin areas that each need to balance the amount of water they use against the amount sent back to recharge the aquifer, and that each subbasin area is run by a newly established local water government known as a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). By introducing any number of possible strategies like water metering, recharge or storage projects and water markets, the GSAs in charge of each region have the potential to affect water use or costs for every groundwater user in their area, from big cities and corporate agricultural operations to family farmers and small communities of domestic well users.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Amanda Monaco, left, and Nataly Escobedo Garcia of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability help communities advocate for drinking water access. Here, they provide information about upcoming SGMA meetings for Tombstone Territory.

The law was passed in 2014 and GSA governing boards were established in 2017, and yet for many Tombstone residents, the meeting was their first time ever hearing of the law. They wondered: Where was their local GSA, and why hadn’t it approached Tombstone to hear residents’ concerns? Would their local leadership keep them abreast of changing groundwater levels, or help them if their wells run dry? To learn more, Torres Romo and other residents volunteered to attend upcoming GSA meetings.

The Tombstone SGMA meeting was run by the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, one of a handful of non-profits advocating for safe drinking water. Water policy coordinator Amanda Monaco says it’s the GSAs’ responsibility to minimize harm for all water users. “They need to be considering the interests of disadvantaged communities and domestic well users, that's written in the law,” she says. “Unfortunately we’re not seeing that being done.”

In 2015, irrigated agriculture accounted for almost 90 percent of the water used in the San Joaquin Valley, and so it’d be easy to argue that ag deserves 90 percent of GSAs’ attention. But Monaco argues the situation isn’t that simple. In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration codified into law that access to drinking water is non-negotiable. “California wants to guarantee the right to drinking water for everyone,” she says. A representative of the Central Kings GSA, which covers the Fresno County area including Tombstone Territory, did not respond to KVPR’s requests for comment.

In the sustainability plans that will govern how groundwater is managed into the coming decades, each GSA has the freedom to set its own target groundwater depth. However, a draft analysis by the advocacy group Community Water Center suggests that, of the domestic wells with known depths in some Tulare County GSA areas, as many as two-thirds could run dry under current plans.

Monaco argues many of these problems could be headed off if GSAs collaborate with communities to find solutions. “You can help deepen those wells before they go dry, and you can help connect domestic well communities to larger systems before those problems occur,” she says.

A survey from the UC Davis Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior, however, found GSA representation lacking for disadvantaged communities, defined by the state as the 25 percent worst-scoring census tracts on an environmental health tool known as CalEnviroScreen.

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Communities across the San Joaquin Valley are seeking greater involvement in drinking water issues. Earlier in 2019, representatives of roughly two dozen communities participated in a 6-month Water Leadership Institute run by the advocacy group Self-Help Enterprises. Here, UC Davis graduate student Kristin Dobbin speaks to the group about SGMA and the structure of California's complex water systems.

In a policy brief outlining some of her findings, graduate student Kristin Dobbin says not only that many disadvantaged communities aren’t acknowledged by their GSAs, even fewer have positions on GSA boards. Of the nearly 250 disadvantaged communities affected by SGMA, “we found only 50 percent were recognized as interested parties and less than 20 percent were participating as decision-makers,” she says.

The reasons for that are diverse. Representatives of many communities Dobbin spoke with either didn’t want to get involved in the SGMA process or didn’t feel like they had the resources, she says, “whether that’s because it comes with financial obligations that they didn’t feel they could comply with or because it comes with a lot of time commitment that they don’t have the staff to actually provide.” On the other hand, many communities have been frustrated with the lack of leadership options available to them. “There is room for improvement in integrating drinking water interests in broader groundwater management,” Dobbin says.

Still, some disadvantaged communities have benefited from SGMA leadership and decision-making, including Lanare, an unincorporated Fresno County community that long struggled to access safe drinking water. A member of the North Fork Kings GSA, Lanare Community Services District President Danielle Roberts shares one seat on the governing board with two other nearby communities. “Whether we’re small or not, we want to make sure that we’re sustainable,” she says.

Roberts says their representation on the board has led to more accommodating meeting times, more documents translated into Spanish, and a water recharge project that aims to bolster groundwater levels below their three communities. “They [other GSA board members] have listened, and they have made those necessary changes to accommodate our communities,” she says. “This is truly a blessing, being able to move forward and work together with all the farmers and agricultural land out here.”

North Fork Kings GSA administrator Cristel Tufenkjian says representation from disadvantaged communities has benefited all groups on the GSA board. “There’s concerns on all sides on how to be sustainable, and I think really what it’s created is kind of a better discussion,” she says.

At this point, for most GSAs, the opportunity to establish new board members has passed. However, interested residents can still get involved by finding their local GSA, reading their proposed Groundwater Sustainability Plans online, and submitting feedback before the public comment period ends later this year. Most plans in the San Joaquin Valley will be submitted to the state for approval at the end of January.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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