With the state poised to possibly mandate how much water Kings County farmers are allowed to pump, it was surprising how quiet the first public workshop on this contentious issue was.
While more than 225 people attended the online workshop Nov. 3, hardly anyone spoke or asked questions of the Water Resources Control Board staff. Staff provided a slide show and explanation of the state’s findings that the region, known as the Tulare Lake groundwater subbasin, does not have an adequate plan to bring its aquifer back into balance.
That “inadequate” finding triggered possible intervention by the state Water Board, the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which mandates that overdrafted subbasins bring their aquifers into balance by 2040.
Groundwater plans covering five other San Joaquin Valley regions were also found inadequate. Those include Delta-Mendota, Chowchilla, Kaweah, Tule and Kern.
State Water Board staff is recommending the board place the Tulare Lake subbasin into “probationary status,” according to its draft report. That would mean the state would take control of pumping in Kings County. The board is seeking comment on that recommendation.
The Water Board will hold a second, in-person meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 8 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. in the Hanford Civic Auditorium, 400 N. Douty St., to gather more public input.
Eventually, the Water Board will hold a formal hearing to determine if the subbasin should be put on probationary status. That hearing is scheduled for April 16, 2024.
That makes this public comment part of the process “critically important,” one local water manager said. She urged residents, farmers and landowners in the subbasin to attend Wednesday’s meeting and let the Water Board know their concerns.
“It might surprise some of the Tulare Lake Basin that they’re facing fees and well registry if we go into probation, which is likely,” said Deanna Jackson, executive director of the Tri-County Water Authority. “That community engagement is significant and it is missing.”
The main deficiencies noted in the Tulare Lake subbasin groundwater plan include: chronic lowering of groundwater levels that threatens domestic wells, continued land subsidence (sinking) and further degradation of groundwater quality.
Of the few people who spoke at the Nov. 3 meeting, Tien Tran with the Community Water Center, urged the state to take action as quickly as possible and a representative with Self-Help Enterprises suggested that if the region were put under probation, the nonprofit would like members of area disadvantaged communities on seats on every groundwater agency in the subbasin.
Both entities work with mostly impoverished communities to make sure residents have access to clean, reliable drinking water.
Water Board staff also went over what would happen if the region were put in probationary status, including that the state would charge fees for every acre foot pumped, as well as a well-registration fees and institute fines for going over pumping allotments.
Other than the fines, the fees aren’t intended to be punitive, said Natalie Stork, a SGMA program manager with the Water Board. The fees are simply intended to repay the state for the efforts required to manage the subbasin.
A representative of Western Growers reminded state regulators that farmers are already paying fees for state-mandated programs to reduce the amount of salt and fertilizers getting into the water table.
So, farmers will have to pay three sets of fees toward a similar goal, the representative said.
Geoff Vanden Heuvel, with the Milk Producers Council, wanted to know if recent efforts by groundwater agencies to address state concerns will be taken into account as the process moves forward.
“If the goal is to work in good faith, that work should be analyzed and acknowledged,” Vanden Heuvel said.
Dorene Adamo, Vice Chair of the Water Board, said board members are listening to all comments and the overarching goal is to keep subbasins in local control.
“But ultimately we do have the authority and we will exercise that authority if need be,” she said.
That’s why, Jackson urged, more residents need to explain how SGMA will affect them.
“The state board needs to hear the personal stories and they need to understand the economic hardships that can be created,” she said, noting that SGMA will have a detrimental effect on property taxes and agricultural jobs. “The people they’re trying to protect are those who will get hurt first.”
Dennis Mills, manager of the Mid-Kings River GSA in northern Kings County, said it appears the Water Board has a fundamentally different view of SGMA’s implementation than GSAs have been operating under.
GSA managers had assumed they would put together projects to reduce pumping and to recharge more water into the aquifer as well as create programs to deal with problematic effects of over pumping over the full SGMA timeline.
Meaning, they had until 2040 to work out all these issues.
Instead, he wrote in an email, “The State Board’s view is that undesirable results are required to be avoided or mitigated immediately.”
He said GSA managers also feel they’ve been given different direction by the Department of Water Resources, which was tasked with the initial evaluation of groundwater plans.
“The State Board’s staff report seems to require the development of a social program that I didn’t think was part of SGMA,” he wrote.
The State Board appears to view any dry domestic well within the subbasin as unreasonable for the entire subbasin, whereas DWR took a different approach, Mills wrote.
Growers in his region, he wrote, “…are all very concerned. I think that is reflected in a lot of property recently going up for sale and long-time farming families moving out of State.”
If the Tulare Lake subbasin is put on probation, it can only end state intervention if the groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) in the subbasin show they are able to work together to come up with a sustainable plan under a coordinated agreement.
That has proved difficult so far, largely because two GSAs in the subbasin are run by the region’s two largest farming entities and those entities have been locked in a bitter years-long water war.