Madera farmers may be facing a steep bill under county efforts to stem the groundwater overdraft

March 5, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
A permanent crop in Madera County stretches into the distance in this cover photo for the 2020 Madera County Crop Report. The number of harvested acres in Madera County increased from 668,320 up to 732,810 total acres, a 9.65% increase between 2012 and 2020. Nearly all of that increase was driven by new almond and pistachio plantings, according to crop reports. CREDIT: Ranbir Grewal, 2020 Madera County Crop Report.
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Madera County farmers who’ve never had to pay for water, could be facing an expensive new future under a new fee plan being drafted by the county’s groundwater sustainability agency.

The new fees could add up to more than $23,000 per 100 acres, tacked on to the cost of doing business for some growers.

The proposed fees would fund a number of projects, including buying water to recharge the overpumped aquifer in order to bring the subbasin into balance under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

The Madera County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to move forward with the rate study but asked for options to relieve at least some of the pain growers will be in for.

New groundwater reality

Throughout the San Joaquin Valley, farmers are facing new limits, greater costs and even penalties attached to pumping as SGMA-induced measures aim to staunch plummeting groundwater levels that have caused entire towns to sink and wells to go dry

In the Kaweah subbasin, which covers northern Tulare County, groundwater managers have set strict groundwater use limits and assigned pumping fees regardless of how much surface water some farmers may receive.

The Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agency has likewise set pumping limits for its growers. But Madera County is one out of seven groundwater agencies covering that subbasin. The other six agencies haven’t instituted pumping limits, which has created its own strife among farmers.

The Madera rate study is another piece of the county’s attempts to bring its critically overpumped aquifer into balance, meaning more water isn’t pumped out than goes back in. 

The rate study will determine fees for growers who aren’t in an irrigation district. Those farmers typically receive little to no surface water and rely almost entirely on groundwater. The Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agency is in charge of those “undistricted” lands. 

The county groundwater sustainability agency has already approved a pumping allocation for undistricted lands, which includes an amount of “transitional water.” That is a set amount of water that is actually more than what’s considered sustainable to pump. The amount of transitional water will decrease over the years to zero and farmers will be restricted to pumping what’s considered a sustainable amount.

The draft rate study includes a combination of fixed fees based on acreage and volumetric fees based on water pumped.

Under the draft rate study, farmers covered by the county’s groundwater sustainability agency would pay approximately $184 per acre of land for the first year, then approximately $200 the next year. Then for the following three years, farmers would pay $132 per acre of land plus $97 for every acre foot of transitional water they pump, according to the presentation by Stephanie Anagnoson, Madera County’s director of water and natural resources. 

The rates are slightly different for undistricted lands in the Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota subbasins that are also overseen by the Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agency. 

“A zero sum game”

Board members and members of the public expressed a mixture of concern and support over the draft rate study. 

One of the main points of discussion for board members was the process of fallowing farmland. 

The fixed land fees are not based on irrigated acreage. So, they would still be charged regardless of whether growers produce a crop on all their land or let some sit idle. 

“I’ve got a problem with that, a big problem,” said Robert Poythress, Madera County supervisor of District 3, of not reducing fees on fallowed land. “It just seems like it’s a double whammy on the grower.” 

If growers do idle a portion of land, they could use that land’s allotted groundwater for crops elsewhere, potentially avoiding the extra $97-per-acre-foot fee, explained Kevin Kostiuk, consulting agent on the rate study.

“Unfortunately our costs are fixed and this is, in a sense, a zero sum game,” Kostiuk told supervisors, referring to projects the county needs to build to bring in more water, among other actions listed in its groundwater sustainability plan 

The Madera subbasin’s five-year cost estimate for projects is $73 million. If fees were waived for some land, fees on the rest of the farm unit would increase to make up the difference, said Anagnoson. The county, she explained after the meeting, is starting from scratch raising money to build facilities and buy water. Already established irrigation districts have charged their landowners fees and assessments for decades to buy water and build canals and other infrastructure.

Investing in the future

The county would also offer a way for growers to recoup costs through its Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program under which the groundwater agency would pay growers to idle land and not use that land’s allotted groundwater. The program pays between $600-$760 per acre of land fallowed. 

Anagnoson said county staff are in the process of applying for $10 million from the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, a state program through the Department of Conservation that funds farmland retirement through incentive payments to farmers. The program has $50 million in funding and could potentially get another $40 million. 

The county groundwater sustainability agency is also in the process of implementing penalty fees for overpumping. The current estimate is $500 per acre foot over the allowed amount. There will also potentially be a fee for replacement water in those cases which could be about $600-650 per acre foot. 

Bill Diedrich, a Madera County farmer with 155 acres of almonds, pleaded with the board to delay the penalties until 2023. Diedrich said he didn’t fallow any of his crop this year. His almonds require two acre feet per acre over the allowed sustainable allocation. That water useage could cost him $350,000 in penalty charges if penalties are instituted this year. 

The board agreed on establishing fixed and volumetric fees but asked staff to look at exempting fallowed acres from the fees. 

“I don’t want people looking back and seeing my name on this board and saying, ‘what a shortsighted decision, because it was expensive at that time, to not invest in those projects to be able to allow our farmers to continue to farm.’ I think it’s still important that we go after these projects,” said Supervisor Brett Frazier. “They’re only going to get more expensive every year that passes and water gets more and more scarce. As hard as this is to put a rate like this, it’s important to finally deliver water where we can and collect it when we can.”

The rate study will need final authorization from the board in April. There will then be a 45-day protest period where the public can refuse the new rates. That’s because Proposition 218, which passed in 1996, requires voter approval for new fees. If there is a majority protest, the rates will not be adopted. If there isn’t a majority protest, rates will be implemented for fiscal year 2022-2023. 

Jesse Vad, SJV Water }

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