There will be a penalty for over pumping groundwater in Madera County, but it won’t be as painful as it could have been.
That was the upshot from a nearly three-hour – sometimes fiery – meeting on Tuesday of the Madera County Board of Supervisors.
Supervisors opted for a penalty of $100 per acre foot for growers who pump more than what they are allotted by the Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). That will increase by $100 each year starting in 2023 to a maximum of $500.
The original penalty was proposed to be $500 per acre foot right out of the gate.
Easing into the painful $500 penalty could allow the ongoing drastic declines in groundwater levels to continue for too long, some supervisors warned.
Supervisors Robert Poythress and Tom Wheeler were the only two supervisors to vote for the original $500 penalty. They both reluctantly voted for the lower penalty after the first was shot down by the rest of the board.
Wheeler said the $100 penalty is, “way too low,” and will result in growers taking advantage of the plan and continuing to overpump.
Madera County must reduce excessive pumping in areas it covers that are outside of irrigation districts, meaning they have little to no surface water for crops and rely almost exclusively on groundwater.
The Madera County GSA had given growers strict pumping allotments already. But without robust penalties, some fear the plan and pumping allotments are meaningless.
The penalties are meant to enforce the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which mandates over drafted aquifers be brought to sustainable levels by 2040.
Madera County’s penalty dilemma is just one in a string of recent controversies over groundwater regulation in the Madera region.
In June, growers in the Chowchilla subbasin, part of the Madera County area, held a successful protest of groundwater fees. Pumping fees were passed in the Madera and Delta-Mendota subbasins.
Those fees pay for projects such as, recharge facilities, land retirement and participation in a new reservoir to bring more water into the subbasin.
Because growers in the Chowchilla subbasin rejected the pumping fees, it no longer has a funding source for many of the new water opportunities.
Growers in the Chowchilla area have formed a corporation to form their own public agency to set fees and create a groundwater plan. That process could take years.
Regardless of local growers’complaints, the clock is ticking for the subbasin to get in order.
On September 22, the state Department of Water Resources deemed the Madera subbasin’s groundwater sustainability plans “incomplete.” The four plans, which came from a total of seven GSAs, had significant deficiencies. Perhaps most glaring was the lack of any mitigation for subsidence, land sinking because of overpumping. The plans also set minimum groundwater levels so low they could endanger hundreds of domestic wells.
The subbasin has 180 days to address the issues and resubmit the plans to the state. If the plans are still not good enough, the state could step in and seize control from the GSAs, implementing its own pumping restrictions, fees and penalties.
Weak penalties and a lack of funding may be a step closer to that fate, warned some supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting.
“If we don’t do it, just remember who will come in and do it for you,” said Wheeler before the $500 penalty was voted down. “The state will. We’re being a little more compassionate than the state will.”
Madera County’s pumping problem has caused a range of issues from plummeting water levels to domestic and community wells drying up.
Despite those problems, in 2021, some of the thirstiest crops continued to expand in Madera County.
There were 160,000 acres of almonds harvested in 2021, 3,000 acres more than the year before. And pistachios expanded by about 5,000 acres for a total of 52,000 acres last year. Walnuts also increased by about 400 acres for a total of 3,200 acres in 2021.
While other crops decreased slightly, it’s these permanent, and water intensive, crops that have continually expanded.
The shift toward permanent crops and expansion of ag has also led to many new wells. In Madera County, 1,260 new wells were drilled from 2012-2021.