Montecito Water District’s Newest Hire Aims to Strengthen Our Underground Water Supply

By Nick Schou   |   December 3, 2020

Six years ago, former California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law landmark water management legislation consisting of several bills which bundled together were called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The law made history by finally mandating a statewide campaign to protect and preserve the groundwater basins that collectively make up the reserves of California’s myriad water agencies.

Montecito Water District welcomes the agency’s first groundwater specialist Nick Kunstek

The law specifically required local water agencies to adopt policies regarding the “management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results.” SGMA requires local officials to come up with 20-year plans to keep their local supply of underground water sustainable – as a medium priority under the law, Montecito’s groundwater basin plan must be fully executed by 2042.

When Brown signed SGMA into law, Montecito’s groundwater basin wasn’t in the medium-to-high category of prioritization – it has since been added to the list of medium-priority basins – but that didn’t stop the Montecito Water District (MWD) from securing a $1.75 million in funding from Sacramento to establish a so-called Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) to help provide data that will allow the district to be in compliance with state law as soon as possible.

That funding has already paid off for Montecito residents. In June, MWD officially brought on board Nick Kunstek, an experienced geoscientist and the agency’s very first groundwater basin specialist. Kunstek, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in geophysical engineering from Montana Technological University, has a decade of experience working in exploration geology and is perfectly suited to the challenges of the new post.

In an interview this week with the Montecito Journal, Kunstek talked about his job and what he hoped to accomplish in the next few years as MWD’s point person for studying and protecting our local underground water supply, a mammoth undertaking known as a Groundwater Sustainability Plan, or GSP.

“This is a process we are hoping to have finished in the next two years, when we submit it to the state for their approval,” Kunstek said. “The GSP is the first stage of a three stage process, developing information about what potential problems we have in the basin. Stage Two is incorporating this data into the plan to counteract any undesirable results to groundwater, and the third phase, which will take until 2042 is a roughly 20 year-long implementation phase.”

Avoiding what Sacramento defines as “undesirable results” will be key to Kunstek’s job. “The state defines sustainability through the counteraction of ‘undesirable results,’ which include the reduction in groundwater storage capacity, the reduction in groundwater quality, land subsidence, and the potential for sea water incursion,” Kunstek said, adding that land subsidence (the potential for land to sink) when groundwater is removed, as well as seawater incursion (the potential for ocean water to seep into our freshwater supply at lower elevations near sea level) aren’t anticipated to be major factors. However, lack of reliable precipitation and above-ground creek flow, along with extensive pumping of groundwater by private wells, each constitute major impacts on the health of Montecito’s groundwater basin.

Kunstek’s work will be informed by a handful of infrequent studies that have been performed on Montecito’s groundwater basin, private well drilling, and the monitoring of potential seawater incursion that have been performed in past decades. However these studies are simply individual snapshots of the state of the groundwater basin and don’t provide much in the way of a reliable pattern of data. Thus, Kunstek’s job will be helping fill in the dots and establish a more comprehensive picture.

“There are some studies that have been done and our plan will be referencing those,” Kunstek said. “Our basin is highly variable both laterally and also from the ability for groundwater to be extracted there is a lot of variability east to west and north to south,” he continued. “So you have variability in what can be extracted due to both the makeup of the aquifer but also the faulting that we have that runs through the basin.”

Although Kunstek has been on the job full-time since June, he’s still in the early data-gathering phrase of the GSA plan. “That means the presence or existence of undesirable results is really unknown at this point,” he clarified. “We are classified as a medium priority groundwater basin by the state, but we don’t yet know if there are undesirable results we have to remedy in some way. That’s what this process of gathering all that information is about. Are there seawater intrusions? Is the basin being overdrawn [by pumping wells], and what various projects can be done to address those issues? We don’t really know yet.”

To address the possible undesirable result of sea-water incursion, Kunstek said, he is developing a monitoring network to determine current water quality at lower elevations and to what extent there is any measurable encroachment from the sea. Similarly, Kunstek will oversee the monitoring of surface water flow in local creeks, and perhaps most importantly, the monitoring of the extraction of groundwater via private wells in Montecito.

“Our funding allows us to enact a fully voluntary metering program where the agency will install meters on private groundwater wells to better estimate what the impact of that is,” he said. “The only real complete records we have of well extraction come from the district-owned wells and what we are trying to do with all these programs from private wells, voluntarily, is look at extractions that will help us project forward what to expect from a climate standpoint and how that precipitation will impact the health of the basin.”

Specifically the agency’s funding will provide cash for gauges that will monitor both the district’s roughly 12 active wells as well as approximately 50 private wells, which will be measured on a voluntary basis; while pumping data from those wells will be aggregated for public use, Nick Turner, MWD’s executive director, says the agency has pledged to keep individual ownership information confidential.

“Fifty wells is a good target but if we could get 100 wells that would be even better, Turner said. “The more data we have, the better refined our plan is. If we could get every private well owner to give us access to put in meters so we could understand the rate of extraction, that would only further refine our plan, because the more we understand the basin, the more we can achieve sustainability.”

After a decade honing his geoscience skills in the private oil and gas sector, Kunstek said he’s excited about the opportunity to put them into use here in Montecito. “It’s exciting because we are recognizing as a community that groundwater is a resource we need to protect and manage so that in the future our children and grandchildren can have sustainable groundwater to pull from. In Southern California in particular, water infrastructure is key to all our communities.”

Cori Hayman, one of MWD’s board members, says that securing confidential volunteers to participate in the monitoring of private well drilling will be crucial to the success of Kunstek’s work on behalf of the district. “We obtained specific state funding to monitor wells so, although we are looking for volunteers to work with us, there will be no cost at all to the well owner,” she said. “Some people are very public about participating; we have members on our Stakeholder Advisory Committee who are very public about it and want to show their involvement, but nobody should be worried about privacy.”

Hayman, who has been involved in groundwater sustainability since even before she joined MWD as one of the directors of the Montecito Association, is particularly excited about Kunstek’s mission. “We have six grant-funded projects to collect data for purposes of sustainability, and Nick is spearheading the organization, implementation and reporting of those projects,” she said. “Our groundwater basin is one of our most important community resources and we are really lucky to have him.”


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