Kings County growers nix local groundwater fees as they face state actions aimed at curbing excessive pumping

April 25, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency board members (L-R) Ernest Taylor, Mark Kairis and Barry McCutcheon, along with General Manager Dennis Mills and Attorney Ray Carlson listen to landowners upset with proposed groundwater pumping fees of up to $95 per acre foot at the April 23 meeting. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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Hundreds of landowners in the Tulare Lake groundwater subbasin overwhelmingly rejected proposed pumping fees this week that would have added thousands of dollars on top of fees they’re expected to start paying the state in coming months.

The fee showdown at the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency meeting April 23 came just a week after a stinging, unanimous decision by the state Water Resources Control Board to place the Tulare Lake subbasin, essentially all of Kings County, into probation for its lack of an adequate plan to protect the region’s groundwater. 

That finding started a 90-day clock for growers to start reporting their pumping. Water Board staff will use that information to start working with groundwater agencies to write up a new plan to protect the region’s aquifers, according to a Water Board press release.

“If deficiencies are not addressed within a year, the board could move into the second phase of the state intervention process, called an interim plan. Only during this second phase, after another public hearing, could the board impose pumping restrictions on basins or issue fines for exceeding water allotments,” the release states

The Water Board is the enforcement arm of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which mandates critically overdrafted areas bring aquifers into balance by 2040.

Mid-Kings had hoped its proposed fees of $25 per acre of land and up to $95 per acre foot of water pumped would stave off probation when introduced in February. Instead, the fees created frustration among landowners, even after several workshops in March to address concerns. 

Kings County growers and residents came out in droves to the April 23 meeting to speak against the proposed  fees. The crowd was so large, folks were moved from a small meeting room for 60 people into a large sanctuary at a Hanford church. The three-member board, general manager and attorney sat on stage under the glow of a neon cross, sandwiched between a drum set and a keyboard.

Many speakers cited a lack of grower input in their opposition to the fees as well as a proposal that landowners register wells, install meters and report their groundwater extractions annually. All of that would have been on top of state fees and reporting requirements set to begin July 15. State fees are set at $20 per acre foot pumped plus a $300 per well registration fee. 

Dairyman Dino Giacomazzi speaks at the Mid-Kings GSA April 23 meeting. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water

“To require landowners to invest thousands of dollars in meters for you just to turn around a year later and tell us we can’t pump from those wells, I don’t think we’re going to want to comply with that,” said Dino Giacomazzi, a Hanford dairyman.

“It’s pretty clear by the amount of people in this room that you can’t get anything done without them,” he said. “I recommend we get together and make a new plan quickly because we understand the clock is ticking with the state board. This group wants to solve this problem and we’ve got to do it together.” 

Kings County Farm Bureau executive director Dusty Ference said SGMA is the single largest issue affecting agriculture today.

“We must regain local control,” he said. “And for that to happen, locals must participate and contribute.” 

Delta View Water Association, a grower advocacy group, Kings County Farm Bureau and the Kings County Board of Supervisors joined forces to oppose Mid-Kings’ proposed fees. All are asking for Mid-Kings to establish a stakeholder advisory committee, with a seat for at least one of those stakeholders on the board of directors. 

Dusty Ference, Executive Director of the Kings County Farm Bureau speaks at the Mid-Kings River GSA meeting April 23. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water

Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon said new representation is overdue.

“We needed this forum five years ago,” he said. “I believe that the board you have in existence today may want to step aside. It’s time to let the next generation come in.” 

Dennis Mills, Mid-Kings River GSA general manager, wrote in an email after the vote that a significant theme is how small farmers and large farmers should be charged. 

“It will likely take some time to develop another approach to paying for GSA administration, operations and mitigation,” he said.

Also voicing frustration were several owners of “ranchettes,” small parcels of ten acres or less who are considered “de-minimis” or pump less than two acre-feet per year but under the proposed local policies, would still have to register their wells and pay a per-acre land assessment that has to be approved through what’s known as a Proposition 218 election. 

GSAs use proceeds from 218 elections to fund administration, build projects such as recharge basins and pay for annual reporting and groundwater monitoring. All of this is even more pressing under state probation. 

Those efforts are outlined in the groundwater plan covering Mid-Kings and the other four groundwater agencies in the Tulare Lake subbasin that was found inadequate by the state.

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

The local agencies tried to come up with a new plan but weren’t able to put it together prior to the Water Board’s April 16 meeting where board members voted for probation.

Had a plan been ready, Water Board vice-chair Dee Dee D’Adamo said she would have considered delaying probation. 

Mills said developing reliable funding and revising the groundwater plan to address subsidence and water quality remain key issues.

“Both issues need to be resolved to the satisfaction of the State Board before probation will end,” he said.

Five other San Joaquin Valley subbasins are preparing for probationary hearings, including the Tule in September and Kaweah in November. Kern, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota will be heard in 2025. 

Meanwhile, Ference said the farm bureau is preparing a legal challenge to the Water Board’s probation ruling. 

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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