New groundwater fee aims to create “equity” among South San Joaquin Valley farmers but some say it will unfairly devalue their farms

July 12, 2023
by Lois Henry
Steve Murray, of Murray Family Farms, speaks in opposition to a new groundwater fee at the Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District Meeting on July 12. Screen grab
Lois Henry

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A new groundwater fee intended to create “financial equity” between farmers who pay for imported water and those who don’t has stirred anger and concerns about land valuation in the Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District.

The new “groundwater service charge” was approved Wednesday by  the Wheeler Ridge board of directors.

While this particular issue only affects farmers at the far southern edge of  the San Joaquin Valley, similar dilemmas are playing out in various forms all over the valley as surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta becomes more scarce in most years and new restrictions are being placed on groundwater as well.

Farmers now find themselves in the ring with one another.

The Wheeler Ridge groundwater service charge is meant to more equitably spread out costs for the district’s contract for state water through the State Water Project (SWP). Not all growers in Wheeler Ridge opted to contract for SWP water and haven’t paid those costs.

But growers who have paid argue that groundwater-only farmers have benefited from the imported water and should pay a share, explained Wheeler Ridge Engineer-Manager Sheridan Nicholas.

It is not an insignificant amount.

The charge would start at $206 per acre foot pumped and increase to $299 per acre foot over five years. This is separate from any potential groundwater fees as part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

For Materra Farming Company that would add $3 million a year in costs and, ultimately, devalue the farm by $10 million, according to Materra spokesman Alex Shafer.

While Materra is opposed to the amount of the new charge, it doesn’t dispute that the subbasin has benefited from the importation of surface water and that groundwater farmers should pay something. The question is how much?

“They’re going way over. By our calculations, the benefit of the water brought in by the district works out to no more than $60 per acre foot,” Shafer said in a previous interview.

He also noted that the Kern County Water Agency already charges a “zone of benefit” fee for bringing in SWP water. The agency holds the overall contract with the state and the various ag water districts basically subcontract through the agency.

The Wheeler-Ridge Maricopa Water Storage District was formed in 1959 to bring State Water Project water to farmers in the south San Joaquin Valley. SOURCE: Research Gate

So, Shafer wrote in an email, groundwater-only farmers in Wheeler Ridge are already paying a share of the cost to bring in SWP water. And Wheeler Ridge’s charge is “3 times the actual calculated benefit,” Shafer added.

Other farmers questioned the accuracy of how Wheeler Ridge calculates how much farmers pump noting the numbers are based on satellite imagery that estimates plant consumption rather than well meters.

“You’re billing us based on an estimate,” said Steve Murray, of Murray Family farms, at Wednesday’s meeting.

Nicholas noted that once money starts coming in from the new fee, the district intends to put meters on all affected wells.

Murray also chastised the Wheeler Ridge board saying the new fee would create more discord among farmers and water districts at a time when the Kern subbasin is already under state scrutiny for a lack of coordination among groundwater sustainability plans required under SGMA.

The state found Kern’s plans “inadequate” and the subbasin is now scheduled to go before the state Water Resources Control Board to determine if it should be put on probation, which would put the state in control of pumping allocations.

“One of the things we need to address is cooperation,” Murray told the Wheeler Ridge board at Wednesday’s meeting. “I don’t see that happening here.”

Wheeler Ridge covers about 147,000 acres south of Bakersfield. About 89,000 of those acres are farmed with 26,000 acres relying on groundwater only.

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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