River rights battles in the San Joaquin Valley stuck in eddy

February 1, 2022
by Lois Henry
Major rivers in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley. Three, the Fresno, Kings and Kern rivers, are now under scrutiny by the Rights Division of the State Water Resources Control board. SOURCE: Wikipedia
Lois Henry

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If you’re living in excited anticipation of the next batch of legal action on several San Joaquin Valley rivers now under scrutiny by the rights division of the State Water Resources Control Board, you may want to cool your jets.

That doesn’t mean absolutely nothing has been happening on the Fresno, Kings and Kern rivers. But things are moving at a, well, conservative pace.

The Kern River seems to be in the lead with one set of hearings already done in December and a second set scheduled for mid-March and early April.

Action on the Fresno River, meanwhile, is becalmed. After the Water Board agreed in October 2020 to sort out water rights disagreements through what’s called an adjudication, the only update in April was that the drought had taken precedence.

All the potential rights claimants were supposed to be notified of the adjudication in July but that was delayed as staff in the Water Board’s rights division had to focus on issuing river curtailments due to the extreme drought last summer.

“There are a lot of open questions on the Fresno River,” said Attorney Doug Jensen, who represents Costa View Farms, which has land along the Fresno River west of the City of Madera. “But for now there’s no wind, no movement. We’re in irons.”

And it doesn’t appear there will be much movement in the near future, according the April update by the Rights Division, which shows the first step, notification of claimants, being delayed followed by succeeding steps with question marks by most dates.

The biggest ongoing drama appears to be on the Kings River where a new player has filed an application for flood water.

The McMullin Area Groundwater Sustainability Agency (MAGSA) filed a petition in November seeking to have the Water Board’s Administrative Hearing Officer revoke the the Kings River’s “fully appropriated stream” status and permit  MAGSA to take flood water that is in excess of what current rights holders use.

It’s unusual that MAGSA’s petition came months after the first set of hearings on the Kings River’s fully appropriated status, which were held in June. Those hearings were prompted by Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County seeking access to Kings River floodwater, which it says has not been used under current licenses and has regularly left the river basin and been flushed north to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Existing rights holders, including members of the Kings River Water Association, are fighting tooth and nail against Semitropic’s bid, saying they do have a use for that floodwater. Especially now, under the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, they’ve said, every drop is needed locally.

Though the first hearings on whether the Kings River is fully appropriated were held in June, Administrative Hearing Officer Nicole Kuenzi has not issued any decisions, according to Semitropic General Manager Jason Gianquinto.

“Her decision on that dictates everything afterward,” he said, meaning water applications from Semitropic and now MAGSA.

MAGSA’s petition and water application were not viewed kindly by existing rights holders.

“Everyone is scratching their heads over it,” said Kings River Water Association Director Steve Haugen.

He said MAGSA is desperate because it’s an area that’s 100% dependent on groundwater and he understands why it wants Kings River floodwater.

“But if they’re trying to take water from their neighbors, that’s not cool,” he said.

That’s not the intent, said MAGSA General Manager Matt Hurley, who insisted the floodwater MAGSA would like is only in excess of what others up the line can take. The district lies east of the Kings River as it curves to the north and cuts through mid-Fresno County.

“As we looked at (the Kings River rights case) something struck us,” he said. “What happens if KRWA is found not to have used all its water and Semitropic is the only other alternative? That would put us at risk. So we decided to make a formal application.”

It wasn’t done lightly as the application alone costs $570,000.

Hurley said the land in MAGSA, which is working on ways to fill a 90,000-acre-foot annual overdraft, has potentially 2 million acre feet of groundwater storage. Building and supplying water recharge facilities has been a major focus of the district.

Far from “taking water from its neighbors,” Hurley said MAGSA’s application would keep Kings River water in the Kings subbasin.

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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