Ag well drilling still under a cloud of confusion from Gov. Newsom’s drought order

April 27, 2022
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
An irrigation well is drilled on land owned by Selma raisin farmer Tony Panoo. His well permit application had been held up as Fresno County and the Central Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency tried to figure out how best to comply with a new drought order that added an extra step to permitting new ag wells. CREDIT: Tony Panoo
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water
Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water

Bill would impose extra scrutiny on new ag wells permanently

Residents of the tiny Kern County community of Ducor might not be in fear of their brand new well failing if there had been an extra set of eyes required before a new agricultural well was permitted last year, according to one resident.

Ruth Martinez, a member of the Ducor Community Services District, explained the plight of her town’s well during testimony in support of AB 2201 during a hearing on the bill by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee April 26. 

The bill was passed by the committee.

AB 2201 would codify requirements recently imposed by an emergency drought order from Gov. Newsom that require an extra step before new ag wells can be permitted. Under the order, counties must seek coordinate with area groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) so that the new well doesn’t impede groundwater sustainability plans, harm other existing wells or cause subsidence, land sinking.

GSAs are scrambling to figure out a way to work with counties without incurring liability for either squelching private property rights or overstepping their legal authority.

Local control and authority are cited as the main reasons for opposing AB 2201. Opponents include the Kern County Board of Supervisors, which voted April 26 to take a stance against the bill.

But communities with vulnerable water supplies believe more oversight is needed, according to Ducor’s Martinez.

Ducor had struggled with water quality issues for years before obtaining a $1.8 million state grant in 2016 to drill a new 2,000-foot well that finally gave the community clean, plentiful water, according to Martinez. 

Then last year, a new ag well of the same depth was drilled across the street from Ducor’s well dropping the water table. Water pressure from the community well has dwindled and residents are worried, Martinez said.

“The county approved it without thinking of the impact to our well,” Martinez told committee members. “There was no notification or ability for us to comment on the permit. Our brand new well is fading because the county didn’t protect us.”

And Ducor is not unique, she said. Numerous other small, poor San Joaquin Valley town are in the same boat.

Assessing harm to other wells isn’t part of the well permitting process, noted AB 2201’s author, Steve Bennett (D-Santa Barbara.) The process is ministerial, meaning if all the information provided is correct, the county has a duty to issue the permit.

That’s a problem in times of drought and areas where aquifers are already endangered, Bennett said. In fact, 1,000 wells went dry in the San Joaquin Valley last year as thousands of new ag wells were drilled, he added.

Though opponents to AB 2201 say the bill will take away local control and thwart ongoing efforts under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, Bennett countered that his bill only asks that GSAs already in existence verify any new ag wells won’t violate their policies.

He said when SGMA was passed, giving GSAs some say in well drilling was “missed” and “GSAs need control over that.”

Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-Madera) argued AB 2201 was essentially “trumping” private property rights and would stymie new ag wells.

Bennett didn’t feel that was likely.

“GSA boards generally have strong representation from the ag community, so it’s not like these are hostile agencies,” he said. 

– By Lois Henry, SJV Water

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Gov. Newsom’s emergency drought order that singled out agricultural wells for extra scrutiny is continuing to cause confusion and angst in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley, while other areas are stutter-stepping forward.

Selma raisin farmer Tony Panoo was happy to finally have his well drilled on Monday after several tense weeks when his permit application was stuck between Fresno County and the Central Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), which covers his 20-acre vineyard.

“It relieves a lot of pressure,” said Panoo, who relies on the small farm as his only source of income and did not have an alternate source of water.

Selma farmer Tony Panoo CREDIT: Wes Harmon

While that individual situation has been resolved, other areas are still struggling with how to comply with the order and avoid liability.

“Everybody’s scared of this executive order,” said Wes Harmon, a well driller with Big River Drilling in Fresno County. “There’s tons of permits that aren’t getting done because these GSAs aren’t moving.”

Harmon said North Fork Kings GSA still hasn’t agreed on a process for approving ag wells under the executive order. The North Fork Kings GSA covers a large swath of the eastern and central valley portions of Fresno County from the City of Clovis out to Kerman.

Part of Newsom’s March 28 drought order, which focused mostly on water conservation, required that GSAs coordinate on permits for new ag wells stating they wouldn’t harm groundwater goals in the area, interfere with other wells or cause subsidence, land sinking.

GSAs were formed under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which aims to bring the state’s depleted aquifers back into balance.

Well permitting had previously been the sole responsibility of counties. With the added step of GSA coordination in Newsom’s order, agencies are scrambling to figure out the process.

So far, it’s a grab bag.

The Madera Irrigation District GSA opted for a blanket letter to Madera County on April 20 stating all new ag wells are consistent with the GSA’s groundwater plan

Other GSAs are taking a more cautious approach. 

Westlands Water District, which covers more than 600,000 acres on the west side of Fresno County, approved an “acknowledgement letter” at a special meeting April 25. The letter must be signed by well permit applicants prior to the GSA sending it to the county.

The letter states that the person applying for the well knows it’s in an area covered by the GSA and that the GSA has authority to take various actions, including limiting pumping from that well under circumstances outlined in its groundwater plan.

“What we’re telling the county is, ‘we’ll give you the letter but our commitment in the letter isn’t firm until the permit applicant acknowledges receiving and reviewing our letter,’” said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands. “So the applicant is confirming that he or she is cognizant of what we have said.”

He added that the district wanted to move quickly because well permit applications are being held up by the county, including at least 10 in the Westlands area.

The drought order put GSAs in a tough spot, said Valerie Kincaid, attorney for the Kern Groundwater Authority during the authority’s meeting April 27. 

“I don’t think we can say ‘no’ or hold up the permitting process because it’s not in our authority,” Kincaid said. “But we don’t want to rubber stamp permits because someone will say, ‘Hey, you didn’t look at this as you’re supposed to under (the drought  order).’”

The authority ended up approving an “acknowledgment letter” similar to Westlands, which it will send to the Kern County Board of Supervisors for approval before it’s implemented.

“This gives us some coverage that we’re not rubber stamping well permits,” Kincaid said at the authority’s meeting. “We’re saying (the well applicant) has to comply with our minimum thresholds (for groundwater levels) and you’re agreeing to operate the well consistent with our groundwater sustainability plan.

“But the flip side is, clearly, there are a lot of folks concerned with well permits continuing to be allowed and they don’t feel that’s compliant with SGMA and they don’t want any permits approved.”

Jesse Vad and Lois Henry, SJV Water }

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