Kings County farmers frustrated with water district’s latest move worry it will hasten state pumping takeover

May 30, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
More than 75 people gathered inside and outside of the Kings County Water District offices to hear a special meeting on May 29. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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Ignoring a letter signed by more than 200 landowners that requested their resignation, the Kings County Water District board of directors not only kept their seats but voted unanimously to remove the district from the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency within 60 days.

That throws another curveball into an already confusing situation in the Tulare Lake subbasin, where growers are hurriedly buying meters, registering wells and paying new pumping fees while adjusting to a probationary status handed down by the State Water Resources Control Board in a historic decision on April 16. 

“Contrary to what’s been said, I don’t believe we have failed,” said Kings County Water District Chairman Barry McCutcheon. “I don’t plan on stepping aside. But I will make a motion to remove the district from the (Mid-Kings) GSA.”

McCutcheon was referring to a letter circulated by the Kings County Farm Bureau, that demanded the resignation of the four-member board and general manager Dennis Mills. 

Until May 29, two of the board members also sat on the GSA board and Mills was pulling double duty as its general manager as well. The Farm Bureau accused the board members of failing landowners by not signing on to a groundwater sustainability plan that should have been in hand at its probationary hearing in April. Without a plan to consider, the state water board voted swiftly for probation. 

After the Farm Bureau’s letter was issued, a special meeting of the district was called, canceled, and then rescheduled to May 29 to discuss removing itself from the GSA.

During that special meeting, more than 75 people either crammed into a tiny boardroom or stood outside tuned into a teleconference call. Many voiced concerns that the district’s withdrawal from the GSA will hasten a spiral from probation to full-blown state intervention in the subbasin. 

“I feel like it adds another layer of chaos to the situation,” said Chip Mello, a grower with land in the Mid-Kings River GSA. 

Lemoore city councilman and Mid-Kings River GSA board member Mark Kairis lamented the fact that forcing the GSA to reinvent itself will affect all water users and delay the region’s efforts to maintain local control. 

“We go backwards, the state’s going to come in and take control,” he said. “I understand a lot of emotion is involved. I’m not a grower,

Mark Kairis, Lemoore city councilman and board member of Mid-Kings River GSA, addresses the Kings County Water District board May 29 during a special board meeting. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water

I’m not a farmer. But I do represent 60,000 residents that use water everyday. I have to look at them, too.”

Grower Garrett Gilcrease said the decision to leave the Joint Powers Authority agreement the GSA has with the County of Kings and City of Hanford adds to an already tarnished image. The GSA unsuccessfully attempted to levy pumping and administrative fees on its growers just before the state water board hearing in April. 

“It is a public perception problem that we don’t want to fix the issue or come back with another swing,” he said. “If the district pulls out completely, it leaves a void that nobody in this room is going to understand the ramifications of. It’s going to create harm after harm after harm by possibly delaying the inevitable.”

Undeterred, the board approved McCutcheon’s motion, signaling the start of a 60-day transition period. 

Now, the GSA will need to find almost entirely new leadership at a time when it should be writing a new groundwater sustainability plan that coordinates with the basin’s four other GSAs. It also leaves many landowners wondering who will represent them at the GSA, as the move also forces the rewriting of the joint powers authority agreement in place since 2016.

Similar shuffling has occurred over the life of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, as agencies change boundaries or amend JPA agreements to achieve sustainable status with the state. 

Most recently, Kern-Tulare Water District formally departed its agreement with the Eastern Tule GSA and formed its own GSA. Delano-Earlimart GSA jettisoned about 7,500 acres known as the “western management zone” that are almost totally reliant on groundwater in 2023. 

The intent of SGMA has always been local control, said Paul Gosselin, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources. Even with the subbasin in probation, the subbasin must still notify DWR of a change in its local governance structure. 

“We don’t take a view on how they do it as long as basins are fully covered by one or more GSAs,” Gosselin said. “They are still obligated to implement their plan. We hope that the basin gets it together and addresses their deficiencies.”

Doug Verboon answered questions for almost ten minutes from a crowd gathered at a water forum sponsored by the Kings County Farm Bureau on May 30 at West Hills College. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water

At a Kings County Farm Bureau Water Forum May 30, farmer and Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon was peppered with questions about the reorganization of the GSA. He said a closed session is slated for June 4 to discuss options.

“We know what our role is but it’s not a unanimous decision right now,” he said. “Some of the others think it would be good for the state to take over. I don’t want that. The county has a role to play and we’ll try to get that done by Tuesday. After that, we’ve got 59 days to come up with something. But I need two more votes. We need to be there to protect the small growers.”

Verboon encouraged the more than 40 attendees to band together during these uncertain times.

“We’re not the target (of the state),” he said. “We have got to stay together. But we have to have a plan in place to get this done.”

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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