By Claire Bjork
Chase and I pulled off of Highway 299 into Bieber around lunch time and joined the row of work trucks parked out front of Big Valley Market; most with a dog sprawling unbothered in the bed or cab. The day was quiet, the sky was impossibly blue save for a few fluffy clouds too small to be a promise of rain, and a slight breeze disturbed the surface of the Pit River to our right.
The rancher we were here to meet was just finishing his lunch when we arrived. He waved us over and we exchanged quick pleasantries before hopping back in our truck to follow him out to one of the pastures he, like countless other farmers, irrigates with groundwater during the summer months when surface water is in short supply. This year, the outlook is grim. Many of the ranchers I’ve talked to have said that they will be lucky to get two cuttings from their hay crops. In a typical year, three cuttings is the standard. Not only this, but the wildfire season has taken off in Modoc and surrounding counties, and swarms of grasshoppers are laying waste to crops.
California is once again facing an incredibly dry year, with nearly the entire state experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions starkly reminiscent of those that saw the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014. Bieber is one of several census designated places located in what is known as the Big Valley Groundwater Basin. Under SGMA, the Department of Water Resources assigned the Basin, which spans an area of approximately 92,000 acres in both Modoc and Lassen counties and lies within the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region, a medium priority designation. This designation requires the formation of a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), as well as the development of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP). Big Valley is very different from other groundwater basins across the state, particularly from those in the more populous San Joaquin Valley where my alma mater, UC Davis, is located. For one, up here the growing season is much shorter and since the low value hay crops grown in this region do not require significant chemical inputs, groundwater contamination is not a major concern. Since Big Valley Groundwater Basin underlies both Lassen and Modoc counties, both have taken on GSA roles for the portion of the Basin that falls within their boundaries and are working jointly to develop a GSP for the Basin in order to comply with SGMA.
The development of the GSP is what brought us out to the field today. UCCE Modoc has partnered with the Lassen Modoc Flood Control and Water Conservation District (LMFCWC or District) as a neutral third party to assist with facilitating a voluntary well metering program within the basin and in some critical outlying areas. Modoc County has received money from the state to support the District getting this program back up and running. Not only are flow meters are a great water management tool for irrigators, but we strongly recommend that anyone extracting groundwater keep a log of total annual pumping for their own records. For those who do not have flow meters on their wells already, we hope that this program will provide a cost effective option. We also deeply value the participation of those who elect to join the program that have installed their own meters, and offer to sponsor the maintenance and calibration of their equipment. In the long run, we plan to use data from this program to help fill some of the data gaps that have made getting an accurate estimate of the total amount of groundwater pumping in Big Valley difficult, and thus refine the Basin’s water budget.
One of my primary jobs as a research assistant is to contact stakeholders to gauge interest for this program, and to schedule site visits with them as part of our outreach effort. When I visit a site, I collect some administrative data to assess the condition of any existing meters, and mark well locations on my GPS. Conducting outreach in this manner and talking directly to irrigators and other groundwater users has had the added value of offering insight into how groundwater is being applied in Big Valley. For example, it is not uncommon for irrigators to pump groundwater into existing surface conveyance systems, such as creeks and rivers, for transport to other sites or, in some cases, to downstream users.
In a setting as rural as Big Valley, meeting our stakeholders where they are at is the most effective way to conduct outreach. Throughout the pandemic, the Big Valley Advisory Committee has hosted its monthly meetings on Zoom, and while this platform has increased accessibility for some stakeholders, limited rural broadband still presents challenges for remote participation by others. Further, many of our stakeholders are strapped for time during the summer months because of the growing season. This year, many are additionally burdened by the felt effects of the drought and as such, attending our BVAC meetings may be a luxury they can’t afford.
In recognition of these challenges, we have doubled down on our efforts to bring outreach materials and information directly to our stakeholders. Given the size of the community within Big Valley, it is not uncommon for discussions about Groundwater planning and projects to take place spontaneously in community centers such as the grocery store and public events. I have experienced this first hand several times, both when out collecting data from our monitoring wells and while attending the Modoc County Cattleman’s field day.
Going forward, we plan to launch a mailing campaign to distribute more information about SGMA and our GSP. In anticipation that some wells might start going dry as the drought continues, we plan to act proactively to ensure that our stakeholders have the information and support they need to report a dry well. Further, we are interested in providing technical services and support for stakeholders who may need to deepen their wells, among other programs. On this vein, we will be hosting a Groundwater and Watershed Health workshop at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall in Bieber on Saturday August 14 from 5-8pm. Topics will cover the Big Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan, Pit River RCD Forest Health Projects, updates on the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program and more. Dinner will be provided, and we are hoping for a large turn out!
Overall, I have really valued meeting with stakeholders to discuss the voluntary well metering program. It has been harrowing, in many ways, coming to terms with the burden that the implementation of this act has placed on much of this community. Ultimately, as an increasingly variable climate casts shadows of doubt on the predictability of future water supplies, I am optimistic that the development of this plan is a proactive step that will pay off down the line. However, in the midst of a year like this one, riding a pandemic into a drought, it can be difficult at times to reconcile that all this planning needs to be done now on top of everything else that our stakeholders are contending with. In light of this, I am determined to maximize the resources at my disposal to assist with outreach efforts that meet our stakeholders where they are. In some ways, providing information about groundwater can only go so far. My general impression is that Big Valley stakeholders are generally well informed about SGMA, but often do not attend outreach events such as our BVAC meetings because they are dealing with other, more pressing issues. As we continue to adapt to reflect our stakeholders’ needs, I believe that our outreach efforts would benefit from the incorporation of other resources to help provide relief from the hardships this year has presented.
To learn more about the Big Valley GSP, please visit https://bigvalleygsp.org/
Resources for Household Water Supply Shortage reporting are available here
For more information about the voluntary well metering program or our other outreach efforts, please call our office at (530) 233-6400.