Kings County farmers face probation as state demands well registration, detailed pumping reports

May 28, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
A well on land owned by the J.G. Boswell Farming Company in the Tulare Lake subbasin gushes groundwater into a standpipe in this 2021 photo. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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Probation has started for the Tulare Lake subbasin and farmers will be getting a list of “to-dos” in the mail this week.

The State Water Resources Control Board is sending step-by-step instructions of what’s expected under this historic designation, in which board staff will begin collecting pumping information. The board declared the region under probation at an April 16 hearing after water managers failed to come up with a coordinated plan to get pumping in check to stop subsidence and better protect domestic wells.

Probation is the first step toward a state pumping take over – known as an interim plan –  if locals can’t come up with their own plan that’s acceptable to the Water Board over the next year. Ever since the April 16 hearing, questions and confusion have roiled Kings County farmers. 

Some answers may be coming in the Water Board’s letter, which will include a Correspondence ID that growers can use to create an account for reporting how much they pump on the state’s new software platform called GEARS, or the Groundwater Extraction Annual Reporting System. 

“Do not throw it away”

“If you get a letter in the mail with a return address of the State Water Resources Control Board, do not ignore, do not throw it away,” Geosyntec consultant

Amer Hussain

told a South Fork Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) grower advisory committee on May 23. “Open it up. It will have information in there and links to their website, but most importantly, it will have a unique correspondence number.”   

He explained that growers who have different legal entities will receive more than one correspondence number and it is important to keep each letter and enter information separately. Those who use farm managers can name that person as an “agent” to input data. But the first order of business should be to purchase and install pump meters as tracking begins July 15. 

Annual groundwater extraction reports will be due Dec. 1 and will cover per-month extractions from July 15 to Sept. 30, according to a Water Board press release. 

Groundwater extractors in the Tulare Lake subbasin who are required to report will need to:

  • Begin tracking groundwater extractions starting July 15, 2024, using a device or method satisfactory to the State Water Board. Extractors who pump more than 500 acre-feet per year will need to install and use certified flow meters on their wells. The Water Board may approve alternative approaches for tracking those large extractions. See the Board’s Tulare Lake subbasin webpage for more information.
  • Submit a groundwater extraction report by December 1, 2024, via the Groundwater Extraction Annual Reporting System (GEARS). This report would cover extractions from July 15th to September 30th, 2024, by month.
  • Pay an extraction fee after submitting a groundwater extraction report. Extractors may request a fee waiver if they meet the eligibility criteria in California Code of Regulations, title 23, section 1044. Additional fee waiver guidance is forthcoming and will be posted on the State Water Board’s website.

The release also contained a Groundwater Extraction Report Quick Guide and a Groundwater Extractors and State Intervention under SGMA FAQ. 

Hussain also broke the news that despite requests to sync GEARS with software already used by growers and GSAs, they will have to enter pumping records twice — once to their respective GSAs and once to the state. 

The reports from growers will serve a dual purpose: “Groundwater extraction reports will provide necessary information to the GSAs to better address deficiencies in their Groundwater Sustainability Plan, and to inform the State Water Board as they evaluate whether it needs to develop an interim plan,” the release stated.

Still need a plan

But Hussain stressed to the South Fork Kings grower advisory board that GSAs still have a role to play during the probationary process.

“We are still expected to prepare a Groundwater Sustainability Plan that will work,” he said. “The state will come in and start putting in groundwater allocations if we get to an interim plan, and that’s something we very much want to avoid.” 

To cover the costs of state intervention during probation, pumpers must pay $300 to register each well and will be charged $20 per acre-foot of groundwater extracted. Failure to notify the Water Board of reportable wells and extractions will result in additional fees and penalties. Only those considered “de minimis,” less than two-acre feet or less per year for domestic purposes, will be excluded from the fees. 

Hussain has had several multi-hour meetings with Water Board  staff since the historic and unanimous April 16 probationary hearing in Sacramento. As the basin’s main consultant, he also has been making the rounds to most of the five GSA board and committee meetings. 

Farther and farther apart

At the probationary hearing in Sacramento, Hussain had the unlucky job of telling the five-member Water Board that although the subbasin had a new draft groundwater plan that was 90 percent complete, the agencies could not find common ground on one issue — subsidence, or land sinking. 

Without a new plan in hand, board member Dee Dee D’Adamo said she had no choice but to vote for probation. 

In the weeks since the hearing, two GSAs have canceled meetings altogether, and the Kings County Farm Bureau has sued the Water Board for overreach, citing excessive fees that it says will devastate the county’s economy. Growers in the Mid-Kings River GSA overwhelmingly voted down pumping and administrative fees, an effort spearheaded in part by the Farm Bureau. 

Water managers have publicly hurled criticisms and frustrations at each other, which culminated in the GSAs abandoning the draft plan that was nearly complete. Each GSA is now writing its own plan, to be tied together with a coordination agreement that may be just as difficult to hammer out. 

On May 24, the South Fork Kings GSA board interviewed a candidate for its general manager position. It’s been without a manager for nearly a year.

On May 29, the Kings County Water District is holding a special meeting to vote on removing itself from the Mid-Kings River GSA, which if passed, will leave some landowners unrepresented, a violation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The farm bureau has called for the resignation of the entire district board, including manager Dennis Mills. Mills and three members of the district board also lead Mid-Kings River GSA.

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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