Sinking land, dry wells and accusations are plentiful in Kings County – but no solutions in sight

May 17, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
A well on land owned by the J.G. Boswell Company gushes groundwater into a standpipe in this 2021 photo. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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Relations among Kings County groundwater entities have gone from bad to worse after the state put the region on probation for its inability to come up with a cohesive plan to curb furious overpumping that has sunk huge swaths of land, dried up wells and caused other problems.

After a burst of collaboration to try and create a last-ditch new plan before the April 16 state Water Resources Control Board hearing that ended with a unanimous vote to place the Tulare Lake subbasin on probation, all sides are now securely in their respective bunkers.

In the weeks since that vote:

  • Two of the area’s five groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs)  have canceled meetings altogether. 

    Groundwater sustainability agencies in the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers most of Kings County.
  • The largest of the five, the El Rico GSA, publicly lambasted Mid-Kings River GSA and voted to write its own plan.
  • All five GSAs have abandoned that attempted, last-ditch plan, which was 90% complete.

Separately, the Kings County Farm Bureau has filed suit against the Water Board saying the probationary designation is an act of state overreach that exceeds the board’s authority under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and will devastate the subbasin and Kings County economy.

And the rhetoric among GSA board members has lost even the pretense of collaboration.

“The whole thing smells”

“I’ll make a motion that El Rico GSA separate itself from the subbasin due to what Dennis Mills did in the Mid-Kings to our GSA and our plan,” said El Rico Board Member George Wurzel during the board’s May 14 meeting. 

He was apparently referring to Mills’ refusal to sign onto the last-ditch plan because it included an allowance for an additional 10 feet of subsidence – an allowance requested by El Rico. That’s not much reduced from the GSA’s first subsidence allowance of 11 feet in the subbasin’s first groundwater plan in 2020.

“There was a whole lot of work and effort done by the people at this table to make a plan that was hijacked by that individual over an ego,” Wurzel continued. “There was nothing in our plan that was going to negatively impact Mid-Kings. The whole thing smells and we need to break away as soon as possible.” 

Board Chair Jeof Wyrick agreed a singular plan is best. 

“We can adopt our own plan, and that way we don’t need anybody’s else’s support,” he said. “That’s the upside to this.”

Wyrick told the El Rico board that he believes the GSA could be let off probation under the “good actor clause,” which allows the Water Board to exempt agencies from probation if they’re found in compliance with SGMA.

Jeof Wyrick

Except Water Board staff already kiboshed the good actor clause in the Tulare Lake subbasin, saying none of the GSAs had shown their actions would reduce pumping or bring in enough new water to stem subsidence (land sinking) and protect the domestic water supply.

Meanwhile, under the probation designation, Kings County farmers will have to register their wells with the state at $300 a pop, install meters and pay $20 per acre foot pumped. Managers of the GSAs will begin working with state board staff to generate a new groundwater plan and if, after a year, they can’t come up with one, the state will set its own pumping limits and can issue fines or even level criminal charges if growers don’t comply.

The southern problem

Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon said the region’s problems lie squarely in its southern reaches within the El Rico, Tri-Counties and Southwest Kings GSAs.

In time, you’ll see that the problem is in their area, especially when they (the state board) gets to the Tule and Kern County subbasins,” in the probationary process, Verboon said. 

Hanford walnut farmer Doug Verboon. CREDIT: Ryan Christopher Jones, 2021

Water is leaving our county and the board sees that,” he said. “They need to follow the rules like the other two GSAs. Those larger farmers think they’re above the law and they’re hurting our future.”

He referred to the massive J.G. Boswell Company, which farms most of the old Tulare Lake bottom and Sandridge Partners, which also holds tens of thousands of acres in Kings County, and is run by John Vidovich. He also laid blame at the Wonderful Company’s feet for buying water that he said is being moved through Dudley Ridge Water District and out of the county.

Each entity has accused the other of over pumping for nefarious reasons. And each controls the boards of two of Tulare Lake’s five GSAs – Boswell controls El Rico, Vidovich controls Southwest Kings and, according to Verboon, Tri Counties GSA is controlled by Wonderful.

Verboon is doubtful a coordination agreement will be reached, to the detriment of the community as a whole. 

“I don’t see it happening right now. There’s so many different personalities involved and everyone has their own interests at hand,” he said. “The state is going to come in here and take charge. We won’t farm as much, it will hurt the local government and local economy. It is against what I would like to see, but the state needs to be here to get it under control to move us forward.”

Verboon’s dim prediction was shared by those in Tulare Lake’s SGMA trenches.

“It’s disappointing it’s gotten to where it is,” said Ceil Howe, South Fork Kings GSA board member during a May 16 meeting. He said when SGMA was passed in 2014, he felt certain it was the state’s intent to take over water use from local residents. “The more we sit and squabble internally, the more I think they’re right. We can’t manage ourselves.”

Separate plans but common goals

Creating separate plans is a tactic that several GSAs in neighboring subbasins have employed, including the Tule, Kaweah and Kern subbasins. 

The Tule subbasin, which must find a way to stop continued subsidence that has forced the Friant Kern Canal to be rebuilt, will come before the Water Board Sept. 17. And the Kaweah subbasin, also dealing with subsidence and water quality issues from overpumping, is scheduled for a probation hearing Nov. 5. The Kern subbasin will come up for a hearing sometime in January 2025.

Some of the GSAs in those subbasins have been scrambling to work up new plans that curb pumping in subsidence prone areas or increase recharge around communities to bolster the water table near domestic wells.

But the catch under SGMA is that even the best GSA plan is tied to all the others in its subbasin. They must be coordinated, using the same standards and methodologies to estimate extractions, recharge, water quality and water tables. If one GSA sets water tables significantly lower than another next door, for example, that won’t work.

What that means is there truly is no “going it alone” under SGMA. Water managers must work together.

The law is the law

Grower Tony Azevedo said it is incumbent upon the GSAs to reach middle ground, especially since SGMA was passed a decade ago.

“We are all feeling the pain from this,” he said. “We’ve had ten years to prepare. The law is the law and we don’t have a choice. We are going to have to make some hard decisions here.”

Azevedo said while reaching an agreement will be painful, it is the best path forward for a region that has three separate aquifers from shallow to deep, known as the A, B and C zones. Deep pumping from the B and C zones below the Corcoran Clay layer that permeates the basin is known to cause subsidence, which irreparably sinks ground, impacting infrastructure both above and below the surface. 

A lot of the pumping in the southern reaches of the subbasin is from deeper zones, while farmers in the northern section rely more on the shallow zone. And those shallow zones are more readily recharged from Kings River releases, while the deeper zones take in water much more slowly.

There’s also a great deal of variance in domestic well locations, with far more congregated in the northeastern section and relatively few, to none, in the deep south pocket of the subbasin.

“I think (having multiple coordinated plans) is a good thing considering how diverse each GSA is,” he said. “It’s hard to have one blanket plan for the whole basin when you’ve got such unique areas. I didn’t even know that was an option a year ago.”

Azevedo said instituting management zones that limit pumping in areas prone to subsidence as well as groundwater allocations will have to be on the table, he said. 

“There’s a lot of moving parts here,” he said. “But we need to do what’s going to be best for everyone.” 

Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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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