Ag well permitting process still causing confusion in Kern County

June 22, 2022
by Lois Henry
An agricultural well pumps groundwater into a standpipe in Kings County in this April 2022 photo. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Lois Henry


Amendments to a bill that would require greater scrutiny of agricultural well permitting would make farmers responsible for making sure the well doesn’t harm existing wells or cause subsidence, land to sink.

Counties and groundwater sustainability agencies have been battling over who should make those findings, which could make them liable if someone were to sue, since similar requirements were laid out in an emergency drought order issued by Gov. Newsom in late March.

The amendments to AB 2201, by Steve Bennett (D-Ventura), would put the onus for those findings on the well applicant, typically a farmer, who would have to hire an engineer, which isn’t currently required.

The well application would also have to be posted on the permitting agency’s website for public comment for 30 days.

The bill has passed the Assembly and was re-referred to the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance.

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Kern County hasn’t issued a single agricultural well permit since early April and frustration in the ag community is at a boiling point.

Ag well permitting slowed to a crawl up and down the San Joaquin Valley after Gov. Newsom issued an emergency drought order on March 28 that added an extra layer of scrutiny to new and refurbished ag wells.

The order requires groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) to provide written verification that the proposed well won’t interfere with their plans to bring overtapped aquifers back into balance. And it requires the well permitting agency – the Environmental Health Department in Kern County – to find new wells won’t interfere with existing wells or cause subsidence, the land to sink.

While other counties seem to have found a way past those hurdles, permits in Kern have languished.

“This is holding up our future,” said local grower Jason Gianelli, who applied to abandon one well and drill a new one nearly two months ago. “It was approved by the water district and the KGA (Kern Groundwater Authority). But I’ve heard nothing back from the county. I keep calling the drillers and they haven’t heard anything either. No insight at all. I have no idea what the hold up is.”

Meanwhile, the 200 acres where Gianelli had planned to grow vegetables sits fallow.

Gianelli isn’t alone.

Other growers with wells stuck in limbo gave an earful to the Kern County Farm Bureau at its meeting last week, said Patty Poire, Farm Bureau President and Executive Director of the Kern Groundwater Authority, at the groundwater authority’s meeting on Wednesday.

Growers at  the authority’s Wednesday meeting noted that some water districts, such as the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District northwest of Bakersfield, don’t deliver surface water to their farmers. They operate by constantly recharging the aquifer so growers can pump to irrigate.

But if a grower can’t drill a well, “He’s just finished. Done,” one man said in obvious exasperation.

A  solution devised by the county seems only to have made things worse.

On June 10, Environmental Health Department Assistant Director Amy Rutledge sent an email to the county’s GSA mangers saying the county can’t make findings about well interference or subsidence, as required in the Governor’s order.

Instead, the county issued a new “verification form” that requires the GSAs to make those findings.

“Those matters are now the exclusive purview of GSA’s because the police power to regulate subsidence and well interference was exclusively given to GSAs by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Rutledge wrote in her email.

This is the “final position” by Kern’s County Counsel, the email states.

“I imagine the (Board of) Supervisors will find that very interesting,” said Kern Groundwater Authority President Dan Waterhouse, adding that growers should make a “full court press” on supervisors to make them aware of the situation.

Poire said she is still working with members of the County Administrative Office on the issue, but she encouraged water district managers and growers to call their supervisors and said the Farm Bureau may issue a “call to action” to let growers make themselves heard at the June 28 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Rutledge told SJV Water that the new process is “working” and the county had begun receiving completed “verification forms” earlier this week from area GSAs.

“I haven’t sent any (county verification forms) to the county and I don’t know of any GSA that has,”  said Steven Teglia, a manager with the Kern River GSA, which covers Bakersfield and large swaths of farmland to the north and south.

When pressed for copies of the completed  verification forms, Michelle Corson, public information officer for the Public Health Department, provided only one. It was from the Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District and had actually already been rejected by the county as it wasn’t signed by a GSA and was in the process of being withdrawn by the landowner, according to Kris Lawrence, General Manager of Shafter-Wasco.

Other than that withdrawn form, it appears there is no movement toward a solution.

The Governor’s emergency order  in regards to ag wells is likely a reaction to what happened during the last drought from 2012-2016 when significant numbers of new wells were drilled all over the valley, some causing water tables to drop so much that nearby drinking water wells went dry.

Yes, that happened, acknowledged grower John Moore.

But greater reliance on groundwater isn’t just a function of drought. He also blamed a reduction in surface supplies as environmental regulations have crimped what can be exported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and other watersheds.

“Even though new wells were drilled, we still have to comply with SGMA (the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,)” he said. “Eventually, there will be limits on how much water those wells can pump. All they’re doing now is putting the farmer in a bind that if their well goes down because we’re in a drought, they can’t drill a new one. So, this doesn’t really solve the problem.”

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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