Court pauses groundwater fees in Madera County; throws regional plans into question

December 9, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Madera County is responsible lands not covered by irrigation districts.
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Farmers in Madera County successfully blocked a key groundwater fee that could upend plans to bring that region’s aquifer into balance per a state mandate.

A Madera County Superior Court judge issued a temporary injunction on the county’s fee of $246 per farm unit acre on Dec. 7. That fee was the underpinning for a number of projects to curb groundwater pumping outlined in a plan by the Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). The GSA was formed under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires aquifers in overpumped subbasins be brought into balance by 2040.

The Madera County GSA is made up of so-called “white lands,” properties that are not within any water district. White lands growers depend almost entirely on groundwater and have never paid assessments, as water district growers do, to bring in surface water or build infrastructure, such as canals and recharge basins. 

The $246 fee on white lands acreage would have paid for such infrastructure as well as to fix domestic wells harmed by over pumping and for a farmland repurposing program. All of the programs were aimed at curbing groundwater pumping. 

The injunction comes after a group of about 80 growers, calling themselves the Valley Groundwater Coalition, sued the county. The injunction will pause the fee so the court can hear the full case, said Mike Alamari, president of Madera-based Pacific Farm Management. 

“The county jumped the gun,” said Alamari, who has multiple clients in the coalition. “You guys are collecting too much money from growers at a time when it’s real difficult.”

He said that Madera growers recognize the aquifer has been over tapped as more farmers have had to use groundwater because surface supplies have been limited for environmental reasons and because of multiple, prolonged droughts.

They know something has to be done, said Alamari. But many feel the county GSA fee is too steep and that the county is moving too fast, he added. 

Growers also took issue with collecting money for projects that were years away. For instance, participation in the new Sites reservoir, near Sacramento, may not see water deliveries for more than a decade, wrote a spokesperson for the coalition in a press release. 

The injunction means that none of the GSA’s projects will collect funding, said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of water and natural resources for Madera County. 

“There’s not an immediate source for those funds right now,” said Anagnoson. “Most concerningly, the domestic well mitigation program.” 

Small communities and households on private wells have been hard hit by drought and agricultural pumping across the valley. In some cases, entire communities have had wells go dry. The GSA’s domestic well mitigation program is supposed to provide support and funding to residents who lose access to water. 

Anagnoson disagreed that the county GSA is moving too fast and is enacting more extreme fees than other valley agencies. 

Madera County is one of the only counties responsible for such a large amount of land under SGMA, she said. And unlike areas with water districts and paying members, the county has no source of revenue to buy and bring in water. So, the fees represent the full cost of the projects, she added. 

“This is a place that is groundwater dependent. It’s a place that is critically overdrafted,” said Anagnoson. “And it’s a place where the white areas have not historically invested in water supplies and infrastructure.”

The county board of supervisors is set to hear rules for the county’s land repurposing program next week. But with the injunction, that program won’t have funding.

The projects are needed, said Anagnoson. But if growers won’t participate, there are other options. 

“If you don’t want projects, we can just do demand management (restrict pumping),” said Anagnoson. “But that’s a pretty painful scenario.”

The projects were proposed by the growers themselves during the SGMA planning process, added Anagnoson. Part of the problem may be that inflation and the current economic climate have made things more expensive than what was originally planned, she added.

All the while, state intervention looms in the background. 

Regions that don’t have a strong enough plan or are not on track for sustainability can be taken over by the state Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of SGMA. 

“If they’re, through a variety of things, unable to either do projects or actions to achieve sustainability, that could lead us to finding they’re not on track for sustainability,” said Paul Gosselin, deputy director of SGMA for the state Department of Water Resources. “And it could result in state board intervention.”

The SGMA process and local groundwater plans are all new which is what creates these challenges, said Gosselin. 

“People may not believe that it’s [SGMA] actually going to happen and it is going to get implemented. One way or the other, the basins are going to get on track towards sustainability,” said Gosselin. “Either locally or if they can’t or won’t, the state board will intervene and there’s fees associated with that.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water }

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