Gov. Newsom’s drought order brings ag well activity to a standstill in some areas

April 14, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Selma farmer Tony Panoo CREDIT: Wes Harmon
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Valley groundwater agencies are mired in confusion and concern over Gov. Newsom’s March 28 executive drought order, which added new steps for permitting agricultural wells, according to agencies’ staff. 

As groundwater agency managers scramble to hash out exactly how to comply with the order, well permits in some areas are stuck in limbo leaving well drillers and small farmers without answers — or water. 

“We’re shut down. I have no permits that are approved right now,” said Kyle Brock, owner of KC Well Drilling in Kings County. “I can’t do anything. I have three well rigs parked.” 

 On March 28, Gov. Newsom signed an executive order aimed at beefing up water conservation measures and protecting the state’s water supply. Part of the order prohibits new ag wells from being drilled without approval from local groundwater sustainability agencies (GSA) first. GSAs were formed under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in order to bring depleted aquifers back into balance.

Previously, well permits were issued exclusively by counties but this order adds the extra step to ag wells of acquiring GSA approval as well. The GSAs must determine that new wells, or changes to existing wells, won’t hurt their groundwater sustainability goals, damage infrastructure or cause ground subsidence. 

For many GSAs with larger jurisdictions full of domestic wells, it could take time to determine the impacts of new agricultural wells. New drinking water wells are excluded under the order.

This portion of the drought order is clearly an attempt to head off what has happened in prior drought years when farmers have had to rely more heavily on groundwater as their surface supplies from rivers, the state and federal projects have been cut.

In the last three years, which have been dry to epically dry, more than 1,700 wells were drilled from Madera to Kern counties, according to the state’s Groundwater Live website. A bill by Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-Ventura) seeks to make the permitting process for ag wells under Newsom’s order permanent. Assembly Bill 2201 is set for its first hearing April 26.

Though the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) has said Newsom’s order doesn’t shift permitting authority from counties to GSAs, confusion has reigned over what, exactly, the GSAs’ responsibilities are.

“The County is asking all GSAs to fill out a form that requires that GSA to make findings that the well will not interfere with other wells and will not result in subsidence,” wrote Phil Desatoff, general manager of Central Kings GSA, in an email in regards to how Fresno County is handling the drought order. “CKGSA is not filling out this form because the required findings are the responsibility of the County, not the GSA.”

The outcome has been that new ag well drilling and rehabbing has come to a near halt in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

“Everyone is taking a pause and thinking about the mechanics of how this would work, the types of things they would look at and thinking about how they should answer the question,” Paul Gosselin, deputy director of SGMA for DWR. “It’s probably pretty common that at least right now things are on a pause.” 

A “pause” in permitting may not affect larger farmers with multiple wells, but small farmers like Tony Panoo in Selma are suffering. 

“I have no water,” said Panoo, whose land is in the Central Kings GSA. “And it’s very critical that I get it.” 

Panoo is disabled. His main source of income comes from growing raisins and cherries on about 20 acres. He had been farming on his family’s long-time ranch, but that land was taken by the state for high speed rail.

He got a new place but the well there was dry. After sharing water from a neighbor’s well for several years, he had finally saved enough for a new well on his land. Then Newsom’s drought order came down and his permit got stuck. The previous deal with the neighbor fell apart and now Panoo is watching his crops die of thirst.

“They’re just trying to make it,” said Wes Harmon, a well driller with Big River Drilling in Fresno County, of small farmers. “They’re going to lose their livelihood, they can’t afford it.” 

It’s not just farmers. Without permits, well drilling work has dried up as well.

“I’m at their mercy right now,” said KC Well Drilling’s Brock about the GSAs. “We have to get this thing figured out. This is no joke.” 

Though several GSA managers interviewed for this story were concerned about the legal risks of approving new wells given the restrictions laid out in Newsom’s drought order, they were uncomfortable speaking on the record because this comes at a politically sensitive time.

The Department of Water Resources, which is managing Newsom’s drought order, will also be re-evaluating Groundwater Sustainability Plans that must be submitted in July by GSAs. DWR previously found all San Joaquin Valley groundwater plans deficient. Without an approved groundwater plan, subbasins could be subject to enforcement actions from the State Water Resources Control Board including pumping limitations, fines and steep fees for every acre foot pumped. So, the stakes are definitely high.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s office said staff wasn’t aware of concerns by any GSAs about the drought order.

“The executive order could have been rolled out better with at least a heads up so we could have started these discussions (between counties and GSAs) earlier,” said Jason Gianquinto, general manager of Semitropic Water Storage District, which is part of the Kern Groundwater Authority. 

He said he hadn’t heard of any farmers going without water in his area because of the new drought order.

“Here in Kern County, we are making a diligent effort to figure out the process so no one goes dry because they couldn’t get a permit,” Gianquinto said.

Jesse Vad, 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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