Sustainable Groundwater Management

Tulare County occupies 4,839 square miles in South San Joaquin Valley. It is bounded on the north by Fresno, to the west by Kings, and to the south by Kern. Tulare, Kern, Kings, and Fresno comprise 4 of the 5 counties referred to collectively as “South San Joaquin Valley.” Madera, on the northern border of Fresno, is the fifth.

Changes in Groundwater Elevations

(Water Years 2011-2016)

These five counties, with very high water demands in critically overdrafted groundwater basins, need to become drought resilient as soon as possible. All have experienced substantial land subsidence due to over-pumping of groundwater basins, are contending with significant water quality concerns due to decades of agricultural runoff carrying fertilizers and pesticides into groundwater basins and into natural waterways, and have had significant dry hydrology over the past ten year

Note that except for a very small area in Kern County (blue) and several spots in Tulare and Kern (green), groundwater elevations decreased considerably since Water Year 2011.


Source: Department of Water Resources. Groundwater Information Center Interactive Map Application.

Of the five South San Joaquin counties, Tulare experienced the most serious drought impacts:

  • Tulare has very little diversity in its water supply portfolio, meeting most of its urban water demand with groundwater. Residents that are wholly dependent on a single resource (groundwater) are susceptible to health and safety risks when wells fail.

  • All 3 of the groundwater sub-basins serving Tulare County (Kings, Tule, and Kaweah) are deemed “critically overdrafted”.

  • A study conducted by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) found that 40% of tested wells by community water systems exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for nitrates.

These factors, combined with very low annual precipitation over the past ten years, created serious problems for the County and its residents. Residents in remote areas that historically provided their own water supplies had no groundwater to pump. At the height of drought impacts, the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services reported 1,988 well failures.

Reported Well Failures in Tulare County as of November 2, 2015

Source: Tulare County Office of Emergency Services, Report for Week of November 2, 2015


Consequently, the County’s water stakeholders are presently focused on implementing the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).[1]

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)

Three bills were signed into law in September of 2014 - Assembly Bill 1739, Senate Bill 1168, and Senate Bill 1319 – and are collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), California’s first framework to manage groundwater sustainability for long-term reliability and benefits.

SGMA requires that all “high or medium priority” groundwater basins identified by DWR as “subject to critical conditions of overdraft” be managed under a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) that is to be adopted by a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA).[2] GSAs within critically overdrafted basins must chart a path to sustainable groundwater management within 20 years. In Tulare County, most GSAs have finalized their boundaries, and all are required to prepare GSPs by January 31, 2020.[3]

Groundwater Sustainable Agencies in Tulare County SGMA Implemenation (4)

Source: Department of Water Resources Sustainable Groundwater Management (SGMA): GSA Map Viewer, available at DWR’s website:


The following entities are responsible for SGMA implementation:

  • Lead communication, outreach and engagement efforts
  • Develop and implement a GSP and complete 5-year updates
  • Monitor, evaluate and report progress towards achieving sustainability goals
  • Lead communication, engagement and coordination efforts at the statewide level
  • Provide data and information, tools, funding and non-technical and technical support
  • Review GSPs for adequacy and evaluate implementation and 5-year updates
  • Develop Basin Boundary and GSP Emergency Regulations
  • May intervene and create an interim plan if a GSA is not formed or it fails to implement a GSP
  • May assess fees for purposes of supporting interim plan intervention

SGMA Basin Prioritization Results (May 2018) found that of the State’s 517 groundwater basins, 109 are prioritized as high and medium and 408 are prioritized as low and very low.[5]

Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs)

SGMA allowed local agencies to apply to form GSAs. Authorities delegated to GSAs include the following:

  • Adopt and enforce a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) to align with the state’s sustainability goals.
  • Regulate, limit or suspend extractions of groundwater.
  • Authorize temporary and permanent transfers of groundwater allocations.
  • Impose fees for permits, extraction, development of the plan.
  • Monitor compliance and enforcement.
  • Acquire property.
  • Transport, reclaim, purify, desalinate, treat or otherwise manage and control polluted water and wastewater.
  • Enforce the GSP plan and impose fines.

In Tulare County, 15 GSAs were established. Every basin in Tulare County (Kaweah, Tule, Kings, and Tulare Lake) is considered “subject to critical conditions of overdraft.”[6]

Tulare County GSAs

Name Bulletin 118 Basin Name County GSA Overlies
Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Subbasin Joint Powers Authority Kaweah Tulare
Tri-County Water Authority-1 Tule Tulare
Kings River East Groundwater Sustainability Agency Kings Fresno


Alpaugh Groundwater Sustainability Agency Tule Tulare
Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District Tule Tulare
Tri-County Water Authority-2 Tule Tulare
Tri-County Water Authority-3 Tule Tulare
Tri-County Water Authority-4 Tule Tulare
Lower Tule River Irrigation District Tule Tulare
Pixley Irrigation District Tule Tulare
Tri-County Water Authority-5 Tulare Lake Kings


Tri-County Water Authority-7 Tulare Lake Tulare
Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency Kaweah Kings


Alpaugh Irrigation District Tulare Lake Tulare
East Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency Kaweah Tulare

A GSP provides path for achieving the State’s groundwater sustainability goals within 20 years with interim milestones in 5-year increments. Each GSA within a basin designated as “high or medium priority” that is not adjudicated must adopt a GSP no later than January 31, 2020.

A GSA is required to provide a written statement of notification to the legislative body of any city or county—or combination of both—located within the area covered by the GSP so that interested parties may participate in the development and implementation.[7] If this includes a public water system regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), then the written notice must also be submitted to the CPUC.

The Department of Water Resources developed GSP emergency regulations that break down the development of a GSP into 4 phases that include the following:

Phase 1

GSA Formation and Coordination that involves realignment of basins and establishment of basin governance through formation of GSA.

Phase 2

GSP Preparation and Submission that involves the development and adoption of GSPs by GSAs.

Phase 3

GSP Review and Evaluation is a DWR-driven activity where they review and evaluate GSPs.

Phase 4

Implementation and Reporting is locally-driven and includes development of annual reports and GSP assessments completed every 5 years during implementation of GSPs.[8]

DWR plans to issue a web-based GSP submittal tool.

[1] A three-bill legislative package, composed of AB 1739 (Dickinson), SB 1168 (Pavley), and SB 1319 (Pavley), collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), signed into law by Governor Brown on September 16, 2014 [California Water Code § 10720]. Source: Department of Water Resources website,

[2] These requirements do not apply to adjudicated basins.

[3] Cal. Water Code § 10720 et seq.; California DWR, 2016c.

[4] California Department of Water Resources, Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) Emergency Regulations, July 2016.

[5] California Department of Water Resources, 2018 Basin Prioritization Process and Results, May 2018.

[6] California Department of Water Resources, California’s Groundwater Working Toward Sustainability, Bulletin 118 Interim Update, December 22, 2016.

[7] Water Code §10727.8

[8] California Department of Water Resources, Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) Emergency Regulations, July 2016.