Kings County Farm Bureau sues state for placing the region on probation because of groundwater woes

May 17, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Members of the state Water Resources Control Board listen to Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference during an April 16 hearing. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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The Kings County Farm Bureau and two of its farmer members have filed suit against the state Water Resources Control Board, claiming the board exceeded its jurisdiction when it placed the Tulare Lake groundwater subbasin on probation April 16.

A writ of mandate was filed May 15 in Kings County Superior Court. A writ is an order asking a governmental body, in this case the Water Board, to cease an action. The farm bureau is asking the board to vacate the resolution, which was passed unanimously.

“The board’s decision to place the (Tulare Lake Subbasin) on probation violated the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and expanded the board’s authority beyond its jurisdiction,” a Kings County Farm Bureau press release states. 

The filing asks for declaratory and injunctive relief, and cites eight causes of action under the writ that the “probationary designation is arbitrary, capricious, and lacking in evidentiary support.” 

The eight causes of action are: 

Groundwater sustainability agencies in the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers most of Kings County.
  • The deficiencies in the designation are not supported by findings of fact and lack evidence 
  • The inability to claim the “good actor clause” and escape probation lacks facts and evidence
  • The Water Board violated the equal protection clause of the constitution by treating landowners differently from others without any rational basis for the difference in treatment
  • Probation is unlawful and exceeds the Water Board’s authority under SGMA
  • The Water Board failed to properly notice landowners of the probationary hearing 
  • Groundwater extraction fees are an unlawful tax and violate the state constitution 
  • The amended SGMA fee schedule of $20 per acre-foot of extracted groundwater violates the state constitution

Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference cited agriculture’s dominance of the county’s economy as the reason for the challenge. According to the 2022 Kings County Crop Report, the gross value of all crops produced topped $2.5 billion, with milk as the top commodity. 

On top of the impacts of SGMA, the region is still dealing with the effects of a record wet year, which prompted the return of Tulare Lake and flooded more than 100,000 acres, some of which remain underwater. That impact will be reflected in the 2023 crop report, which will be released in September.

“When ag suffers in Kings County, the entire community suffers,” he states in the release. “Placing the subbasin on probation in 2024 is inconceivable and unjust. SGMA dictates that subbasins have until 2040 to achieve sustainability, and the board has arbitrarily accelerated that deadline to 2024.” 

A statement provided by Edward Ortiz, public information officer for the Water Board, counters that claim.

“The goal of SGMA is to ensure that groundwater resources are accessible for farms and communities both now and in the future, and it requires the State Water Board to act when local groundwater sustainability plans are deemed inadequate,” the statement reads. “Prior to taking the subbasin into probation, the board engaged in an extended public process; the board is confident that it correctly applied its authorities to protect vital groundwater supplies in the Tulare Lake Subbasin.”

Landowners Julie Martella and Helen Sullivan, members of the farm bureau, have joined the suit against the Water Board. Both Martella and Sullivan journeyed to Sacramento for the probationary hearing and spoke out against the designation during the marathon nine-hour meeting.

Martella leases her family’s 40 acres of walnuts to another farmer. When the well went dry after her husband’s death, she had to get a loan to drill a new one to maintain the lease.

“Even at 40 acres, my voice counts,” Martella said. “I have skin in the game.”

She said paying the fees associated with probation are like “trying to get blood from a turnip.”

“We’re already running little to no profit,” she said. “If the farmer I lease my land to can’t make any money, he’s going to leave. I am dependent on someone taking care of my orchard. These fees will be one more nail in the coffin of agriculture in Kings County.” 

Others, including clean water advocates and even water managers from neighboring subbasins supported the board’s decision to put Tulare Lake on probation.  Community Water Center, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Clean Water Action and Union of Concerned Scientists all spoke in favor of probation at the April 16 hearing.

Antonio Solorio, representing the massiveWestlands Water District, also called for probation saying that Westlands and its neighbors need to work to protect groundwater levels.

The Kings County Farm Bureau has played a growing role in helping educate growers about SGMA and keeping tabs on the basin’s five Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). It spoke against recently proposed administrative and pumping fees in the Mid-Kings GSA, has started a water committee that meets every other week, and is sponsoring a free water forum Thursday, May 30 titled “Tulare Lake Subbasin Hearing Recap and Next Steps in Probation.”  

A case management conference is scheduled for Sept. 13 in Kings County Superior Court.

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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