Kings County farmers suffer sticker shock over proposed fees even as state takeover looms

March 27, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Farmers pack a March 19 workshop held by the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency to ask about proposed fees of $95-per-acre-foot of water and $25-per-acre of land. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

Share This: 

Kings County growers are organizing to stop a set of groundwater and land fees they say will wipe out small farmers, even as the drumbeat of a looming state takeover grows louder.

Managers of the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), which covers the northern tip of Kings County, have been holding a flurry of meetings asking farmers to approve the fees – a combination of $95-per-acre-foot of water pumped and $25-per-acre of land  – at its April 23 meeting.

That is after April 16, when the state Water Resources Control Board will hold a hearing to decide whether to put all of Kings County, known as the Tulare Lake groundwater subbasin, into probation for failing to come up with an adequate plan to stop over pumping.

The Water Board is the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which mandates areas with critically overdrafted aquifers bring them into balance by 2040. A plan to do that in the Tulare Lake subbasin was rejected twice by the state so now the region faces probation.

If it does go into probation, the state would issue its own pumping allotments, fees and fines.

Groundwater agencies in the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County.

Last ditch effort

The situation has growers scratching their heads, questioning what they feel is Mid-Kings’ rush to fund an $11 million budget and wondering why these details weren’t ironed out before the threat of a state takeover. 

“If we get stuck with those fees they’re proposing, with less water, that’s a no brainer. I’m out of business,” said Joaquin Contente, who grows silage for dairies. 

Some growers consider Mid-Kings’ attempt to assess growers $25-per-acre a last ditch effort to show the Water Board that the GSA can deliver on promises made in its groundwater plan — promises made without input from those asked to pay for it. 

“They’re building the plane as they’re flying it,” said grower Garrett Gilcrease. “The entire grower community was under the guise that the GSAs had this handled and now we are about to be kicked into probation.”

Growers are now organizing to protest the fees. 

$11 million “unfathomable”

Two organizations — Kings County Farm Bureau and Delta View Water Association — are urging landowners to vote down Mid-Kings’s proposed fees, citing lack of stakeholder input.

“A budget of over $11 million per year is unfathomable,” Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference wrote in a letter to the Mid-Kings board, calling the expenses unjustified. “Additionally, the GSA has operated in a silo while creating its GSP, refusing to develop stakeholder advisory committees or receive input from landowners in the GSA.”

GSAs have limited options for raising funds. Increased land assessments are the most common and must be approved through a Proposition 218 election. Neighboring Southwest Kings GSA landowners approved a $9.80 assessment in February.

Mid-Kings GSA held three public workshops through March, where landowners filled rooms to capacity. 

Mid-Kings General Manager Dennis Mills gave an overview of the last five years, including the formation of the GSA, SGMA requirements, proposed fees and how all this plays into the April 16 probationary hearing.

Mid-Kings River GSA General Manager Dennis Mills answers questions at a March 19 workshop. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water

“This is not what I wanted,” Mills said. “But we believe we need to do this on your behalf. If not, the state will do it for us. The proof is in the financials, to enact policies and to show the state we can pay for those efforts.” 

Those policies center on reduced pumping and paying to fix domestic wells damaged by over pumping. In 2022, 60 wells went dry in Mid-Kings. Fixing or drilling domestic wells would cost at least $6 million a year at $100,000 per well, Mills said.

Severe pumping limits

The Tulare Lake subbasin stretches across 500,000 acres and has three aquifers known as A, B and C zones. Most domestic wells are in the shallow A or B zones. 

A-zone wells are limited to pumping just one half acre foot per acre per year, an allocation that some growers say is a death sentence for their operations

B-zone limits are three acre-feet-per acre.

And pumping from the C-zone is limited to two acre-feet-per acre. Pumping at this depth can create more subsidence, or land sinking. 

Mills said approving the proposed fees will at least show the state board that local control is important to landowners, whether during probation or after.

“This is your decision. The agency did this based on my recommendation to the board to get away from state control. You may think it’s a stupid plan but if we don’t do it, we absolutely know where we’re going,” Mills told the sometimes rowdy crowd during a March 19 meeting about the fees. “The other option is the state takes over. I predict they’ll cut your allocation in half. They won’t build recharge projects, they’ll just stop you from pumping.”

Landowners voiced frustration that the GSA’s groundwater plan is still being finalized with consultant Geosyntec. That plan must be coordinated with the four other GSA’s that cover the subbasin and that has been difficult, Mills said.

The goal is to submit a revised groundwater plan to the Water Board April 1, just two weeks before the probation hearing.

There is no indication Water Board staff will consider a new groundwater plan within such a short timeframe.

Tricky dance

“This is an extremely tricky proposition because we’re trying to get all five (GSAs) to agree to the same thing,” Mills said at Mid-Kings’ March 26 board meeting. “Whenever anybody pushes real hard, it causes others to adjust or push back. It’s an interesting dance we’re doing right now.” 

Mills said three of the GSAs are trying to use the “good guy clause,” a clause in the Water Code that states: “The board shall exclude from probationary status any portion of a basin for which a groundwater sustainability agency demonstrates compliance with the sustainability goal.”

But Mills predicts this won’t fly with the Water Board come April 16. 

“We will sink or swim together,” he said.

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.


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter & Get Email Notifications

Enter your email address to receive INSTANT ALERTS of new articles and to be added to SJV Water’s WEEKLY NEWSLETTER