A Tulare County groundwater agency on the hot seat for helping sink the Friant-Kern Canal holds private tours for state regulators

April 8, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
State Water Resources Control Board members took tours of the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Clockwise: Board Chair Joaquin Esquivel; Board Member Nichole Morgan; Board Member Laurel Firestone; Board Member Sean Maguire; and Vice Chair Dorene D'Adamo. SOURCE: Water Board website
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water


Employing a lobbyist or firm isn’t uncommon among water agencies.

Though most groundwater sustainability agencies facing probationary hearings at the state Water Resources Control Board have tried to make their case to the state themselves or through engineering or hydrology consultants.

According to financial documents, the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency budgeted $80,000 for “state advocacy services” in the 2023-2024 fiscal year. By April 2024, it had spent 69% of that, or about $59,000.

A memorandum in the Eastern Tule GSA board of directors packet states: “Since being brought on board, Nossaman has worked closely with the GSA to identify our advocacy goals, initiate discussions with State Board Members, and update our State Legislative Delegation.”

Eastern Tule general manager Rogelio Caudillo said the lobbying firm Nossaman LLP was retained to “assist ETGSA in its relationship with the state board, ensuring that the agency has an effective voice throughout the process.”

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As the date of reckoning for excessive groundwater pumping in Tulare County grows closer, lobbying by water managers and growers has ramped up.

The Friant Water Authority, desperate to protect its newly rebuilt –  yet still sinking – Friant-Kern Canal, has beseeched the Water Resources Control Board to get involved. Specifically, it has asked board members to look into how the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) has, or has not, curbed over pumping that affects the canal.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Tule groundwater agency has been doing a bit of its own lobbying. It recently hosted all five members of the Water Board on three separate tours of the region, including the canal. Because the tours were staggered, there wasn’t a quorum of board members, which meant they weren’t automatically open to the public.

There are six groundwater sustainability agencies in the Tule subbasin

SJV Water asked to attend and a spokesman for the Water Board said that was fine with the state. But Eastern Tule’s lobbying agency, Nossaman LLP, said no.

The firm said the tour was “a technical tour with the GSA and not a tour that is open to the public.” 

“The goal was for board members to see the amount of work conducted and progress of the GSAs that has happened since 2022,” Eastern Tule General Manager Rogelio Caudillo wrote in an email.

The tours were held Feb. 28 with board members Laurel Firestone and Nichole Morgan; March 8 with Vice Chair Dee Dee D’Adamo; and April 8 with Board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel and  board member Sean Maguire. 

When asked what they did, Blair Robertson, Water Board public information officer, said members went on a driving tour of the subbasin followed by a roundtable discussion. 

“Board members were able to see part of the reconstruction of the Friant-Kern Canal due to subsidence damage, as well as recharge basins and locations for future recharge basins,” Robertson wrote in an email. 

That didn’t sit well with Johnny Amaral, chief operating officer of Friant Water Authority, which manages the canal on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation and is in the middle of rebuilding portions that sank. 

“We take this very seriously,” Amaral said. “From the perspective of Friant, we can’t have people showing up on the property no matter who they are. It’s a major safety concern, and that doesn’t touch on the trespassing aspect.”

The stakes, and sensitivities, of what is said and done during such private meetings with the state’s enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) could not be higher.

In just five months, on September 17, those same Water Board members will preside over a hearing to determine if the Tule subbasin – including all six groundwater agencies – should be put into probationary status. If so, that is the first step toward a possible state takeover of pumping in the subbasin. Under an interim pumping plan, state bureaucrats could set pumping levels, require farmers to put meters on every well and charge $20 per acre foot pumped, plus issue steep fines for going over allotments.

State control is the SGMA “stick” that water managers have been working to avoid over the past 10 years since the groundwater act was passed.

Five other San Joaquin Valley subbasins are facing probationary hearings as well including: the Tulare Lake subbasin (which covers Kings County) on April 16; the Kaweah subbasin in November; the Kern subbasin in January 2025; and the Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota subbasins later in 2025.

Water Board members also toured the Tulare Lake subbasin.

In the Tule subbasin, the Friant Water Authority and others say the Eastern Tule groundwater agency has not done enough to stop overpumping and the outcome is obvious as the Friant-Kern Canal continues to sink.

A 33-mile section of the canal from about Pixley to the Kern County line had to be rebuilt as it had sunk so badly the canal’s carrying capacity was crimped by 60%.

That section runs through the Eastern Tule GSA where farmers rely almost entirely on groundwater. Subsidence and infrastructure damage was one of the main reasons the state found the Tule subbasin’s groundwater plan inadequate and why Water board staff are recommending the board put the subbasin into probation.

A workshop was set for April 8 for board members to hear whether members of the public agree the region should be put on probation.

The Friant Water Authority recently sued the Eastern Tule GSA, alleging it hasn’t done enough to cut pumping as evidenced by continued subsidence beneath the newly rebuilt canal and new pockets of subsidence in other sections.

For its part, Eastern Tule has said it is working toward those goals and has limited pumping in sensitive areas nearest to the canal.

Water Board spokesman Robertson wrote that information provided during the recent private tours offered additional perspective for the board members.

“Board members considered it helpful to hear real-life stories of how the SGMA is changing the decisions people in agriculture are making and the economics of growing in the Central Valley,” he wrote.

Other water managers weren’t opposed to such tours for Water Board members, but felt the entire subbasin should have been included, not just one GSA. 

They also noted that certain indisputable facts, such as continued land subsidence, should be the focus.

“What I am most concerned about are the undesirable results that are continuing today,” said Eric R. Quinley, General Manager of the Delano-Earlimart GSA. “You can have all the discussions you want but at the end of the day, we have to consider the undesirable results because that’s what SGMA calls us to do.”

Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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