Chaos continues to reign among Kings County water agencies following state action

June 26, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) in the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County. The top section noted as Mid-Kings River GSA in this map is now not covered as Mid-Kings dissolved earlier this month.
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

Other Tulare Lake subbasin developments:

  • June 20 — South Fork Kings GSA hired consultant Johnny Gailey as its interim manager on a contract basis. The board approved paying him up to $11,000 a month. But the GSA does not have the funds to cover the cost.
    Grower Doug Freitas: “Why do we need a consultant when we don’t have any money?”
    Board member Ceil W. Howe, Jr.: “We have already gone six months without a manager and we’ve struggled. It’s important that we have someone who follows this on a daily basis. We’re going to go into the negative but hopefully the county can get us through.”
    Gailey: “There’s a lot of work to be done here, and we will need to get a lot more people involved to finance the operations of the GSA.” 


  • June 13 — The Kings County Farm Bureau sent another round of emails asking for donations to help pay for its lawsuit against the state Water Board. Executive director Dusty Ference anticipates the legal action will cost $400,000 and is asking members opposed to the Water Board’s April 16 vote to donate $8 per acre. It also invites GSAs in and around the subbasin to contribute $4 an acre. A case management hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13 in Kings County Superior Court.

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It’s been two and a half months since the state brought the hammer down on water managers in Kings County for lacking an adequate plan to stem overpumping in the region and the situation is, in a word – chaotic.

One groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) has imploded, leaving the county to potentially pick up the pieces. Another doesn’t have enough money in the bank to pay its newly hired manager. 

One GSA has repeatedly canceled meetings, others appear to be crafting their own plans and one is banking on being exempted as a “good actor,” despite the state’s repeated insistence that there will be no such exemptions in San Joaquin Valley basins now under scrutiny.

Oh, and the Farm Bureau is suing the state Water Resources Control Board over its vote April 16 to put the region, the Tulare Lake subbasin, into probation – the first step toward a possible state pumping takeover.

All this while a deadline is rapidly approaching July 15 for all Kings County pumpers to register their wells and begin tracking their groundwater consumption. The largest pumpers, those who extract more than 500 acre feet per year must install meters. All pumpers are required to report their information to the state through its new GEARS (Groundwater Extraction Annual Reporting System) platform between September 30 (the end of the water year) and December 1. 

“Everyone is so mad”

A meeting has tentatively been set for July 25 to try and gather the tatters in northern Kings County and find a path forward but Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon is skeptical of success.

“Everyone is so mad, I don’t know if I can calm them down,” he said of the county’s effort to replace the GSA that dissolved, leaving the county, City of Hanford, Kings County Water District and a host of farmers on their own.

“It’s going to land in our lap,” Verboon said of the likelihood Kings County will have to step in as the GSA for all, or some portion of land after the Mid-Kings River GSA dissolved when the Kings County Water District pulled out leaving it without the ability to hold a quorum.

So, how did the region get here?

Some blame the Mid-Kings River GSA for not signing off on a new groundwater plan water managers had hoped to present to the state Water Board prior to that April 16 hearing. Without a new plan, state water board members said they had no choice but to vote for probation.

In its own defense, the former Mid-Kings River GSA manager Dennis Mills said he couldn’t sign off on that plan as it allowed for 10 more feet of subsidence, land sinking. The state had already failed the region’s previous plan – twice – in part because it allowed too much subsidence.

Now, it seems, water managers have more problems than deciding how best to curb pumping.

Puzzle pieces

There were five GSAs covering the Tulare Lake subbasin. The El Rico, Southwest Kings and Tri-County GSAs cover the southern two thirds of the region, while the South Fork Kings and Mid-Kings River GSAs covered the top third. 

With Mid-Kings River GSA now dissolved, the subbasin has a large gap, which is not allowed under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

“It throws all of us into a tailspin. I’m willing to throw Mid-Kings under the bus because they quit. They flat out quit,” Jeof Wyrick, manager of El Rico GSA said at its June 11 board meeting. 

Deanna Jackson, executive director of Tri-County Water Authority called the level of grower compliance in the Mid-Kings and South Fork Kings GSAs “the biggest unknown.” 

“Landowners should comply to protect themselves,” she said. “It’s going to take those GSAs getting their management in order to begin the outreach efforts that are so important.”

She said Tri-County, El Rico and Southwest Kings GSAs are rewriting their groundwater plans, although Southwest Kings GSA has not held a public meeting since April 16.

Five years behind

Verboon said growers in Mid-Kings River GSA and the neighboring South Fork Kings GSA are at least five years behind where they should be. 

“Neither GSA has a well registry or metering requirement, or a way to communicate with growers,” he said. “They do not know who is pumping what or when.”

Mid-Kings River did attempt to pass land assessment and pumping fees to fund projects within the GSA but those were defeated thanks, in part, to a campaign by the Farm Bureau, which alleged the actions lacked transparency and grower input.  

Verboon said county attorneys are working through procedural issues with former Mid-Kings manager Mills that will turn over the GSA to the county.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Kings GSA just hired a new manager after six months without one. But it doesn’t have funds in the bank to cover the $11,000 a month it agreed to pay. Board members are expecting to go into the red and hoping Kings County can help them out.

“One cranky guy”

As all these plates are spinning independently, basin coordinator Amer Hussain with engineering firm Geosyntec is attempting to craft a coordinating agreement between all the existing GSAs. Coordination is another SGMA  requirement when a region has separate plans. 

With so much uncertainty in the subbasin, at least Wyrick with El Rico seems certain of one thing  – that El Rico will qualify for the “good actor” clause. 

That is in spite of the fact that it was El Rico that demanded the failed draft plan include 10 more feet of subsidence and that Water Board staff have recommended against exempting any GSAs in the Tulare Lake subbasin – and all other subbasins under state scrutiny – from state action. 

Still, Wyrick told his board he didn’t believe El Rico would suffer ill-effects because of Mid-Kings Rivers’ dissolution.

“One cranky guy can’t take down the whole ship,” he said, referring to Mills. “Just because they don’t like something doesn’t mean they get to dictate. I’m willing to take that to the ends of the earth.”

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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