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.
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.”