Kern County reverses course on ag well permitting

June 24, 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

UPCOMING HEARING

A bill that would permanently add more scrutiny to permitting agricultural wells is set for a hearing in the state Senate Committee on Governance and Finance at 9 a.m. June 29.
The bill, AB 2201, has already passed the Assembly.

It was amended to require well applicants, typically farmers, provide a report by a licensed professional attesting that the well wouldn’t harm existing wells or cause subsidence, land to sink.Counties and groundwater sustainability agencies have been battling over who should make those findings 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 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.

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In a complete turnaround from its stance earlier this week, Kern County late Thursday dropped its requirement that groundwater agencies make certain findings about proposed new agricultural wells before it would consider issuing permits for those wells.

The situation had reached a boiling point in the local ag community as the Kern County Environmental Health Department had not issued a single permit for a new or replacement ag well since April 6. The department has 16 pending ag well applications.

Farmers were left in the lurch even as the drought has crippled surface water supplies and dropped water tables to the point that some existing wells ceased to function.

The local Farm Bureau and the Kern Groundwater Authority had encouraged members to call their county supervisors and potentially show up en masse at the Board of Supervisors’ June 28 meeting to demand an explanation.

All of that heat may have been cooled with an email sent to Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) managers at 5:46 p.m. Thursday by County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop, which completely reversed the county’s earlier stance.

In response to an emergency drought order issued March 28 by Governor Newsom that required extra scrutiny of new or replacement ag wells, Kern had required GSAs to determine whether proposed wells would interfere with existing wells or cause subsidence, the land to sink, before it would issue a permit.

However, the Governor’s order clearly lays that requirement at the feet of the permitting agency, which is the Kern County Environmental Health Department. The order states that GSAs are required to determine the proposed well won’t harm their plans to bring overdrafted aquifers back into balance. Those distinct responsibilities were also repeated in several “guidance sheets” issued by the Department of Water Resources.

Even so, the extra requirements placed on GSAs were noted to be the Kern County Counsel’s “final position” on the matter, per an email from Environmental Health to GSA managers on June 10.

Well permits continued to languish until frustrations erupted at a Kern Groundwater Authority meeting where members were encouraged to bring the problem to county supervisors.

Alsop acknowledged the new permitting protocol was developed throughout the day Thursday because of SJV Water’s impending coverage and intensifying pressure from GSAs and farmers.

The new permitting process adheres to the Governor’s order requiring GSAs to determine if the proposed well would interfere with their groundwater sustainability plans and not make other findings that are listed as responsibilities of the permitting agency.

This verification form signed by the GSA and submitted as part of an application will produce a permit,” Alsop wrote in his email to GSA managers Thursday.

His email continued that he hopes the new protocol “clears any confusion” about how ag wells will be permitted under the emergency drought order.

It’s unclear how quickly those pending 16 ag well applications will be processed but Alsop said as soon as the county receives the new verification forms it will get to work on the permits.

Meanwhile, GSA managers were pleased with the county’s 180.

“We appreciate the County’s efforts to collaborate with the Kern Subbasin GSAs to develop the current process,” wrote Steve Teglia, a manager of the Kern River GSA, in an email. “This collaborative approach provides a clear path forward for the County and GSAs to carry out their respective responsibilities under the Governor’s Executive Order.”

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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