Split opinions lodged at hearing on possible state takeover of groundwater use in Tule Subbasin

April 12, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
The Tule groundwater subbasin covers the southern half of Tulare County's valley portion. Local agencies did not create an acceptable plan to bring the aquifer there into balance so now the state Water Resources Control Board is considering taking over pumping in the region.
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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Four members of the State Water Resources Control Board got an earful on the future of the Tule Subbasin during a public hearing held in Porterville on April 8. 

A draft staff report released in March recommends probation for the subbasin for failing to get a handle on groundwater overdraft. 

Probation is the first step toward possible state takeover of groundwater pumping. If a subbasin does not address issues within a year, it would then enter Chapter 11 and state bureaucrats can set pumping limits, charge fees and issue steep fines to growers who go over their allotted amount. 

For more than three hours, farmers, drinking water quality advocates, technical consultants and managers from several of the basin’s groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) weighed in on the report’s recommended action. 

“The term probation has a punitive and negative connotation,” Pam Sola, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Tipton, told the board. “Ag is not a villain. We’re not just extractors, and we consider our employees to be part of our family. We want to see the fifth and sixth generations farming our ground and we want to be part of the solution.” 

While probation was mostly opposed by farmers and representatives from GSAs and water districts, drinking water advocates and residents of communities like Poplar, Woodville and Ducor were in favor of it as a way to address water quality and access issues. Many residents addressed the board through a Spanish interpreter and expressed frustration with having to purchase bottled water. 

“Even though the state declared the Human Right to Water in 2012, we’re still seeing these issues in 2024,” said Tien Tran, senior policy advocate for the nonprofit Community Water Center. “The state water board has the authority and the responsibility to address the drinking water crisis proactively and not leave these residents behind.”

The board is expected to make a final decision at a hearing on Sept. 17. 

The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act mandates overdrafted subbasins to bring aquifers into balance by 2040. Regions were allowed to come up with groundwater plans locally but the Tule subbasin plan was twice found inadequate and now faces state enforcement.

GSA managers shared concerns that probation would undermine the trust they’ve cultivated with landowners. 

Vanessa Yap, engineer with Kern-Tulare Water District, explained that growers in the Kern-Tulare GSA, the newest in the subbasin, are already onboard with well registration and metering. 

“Designating Kern-Tulare as probationary and charging state board fees will undo the great work and great trust we have established with our landowners,” she said.   

Deanna Jackson, general manager of Tri-Counties Water Authority, expressed a similar concern. 

“We encourage staff and board members to consider the credibility that GSAs such as Tri-Counties has achieved with its stakeholders and the momentum that has been built toward demand reduction policy thus far,” she said. “This momentum and credibility with landowners could be greatly set back if the board deems our portion of the subbasin as probationary.” 

Many public comments also appealed to the board and staff not to treat all the GSAs in the region the same, and to consider the “good guy clause” in its ruling, even though Water Board staff recommended the entire subbasin be put on probation in its report. 

Several speakers called out Eastern Tule GSA, which is being sued by Friant Water Authority for allowing its landowners to pump groundwater at a rate that continues to cause subsidence that has damaged critical infrastructure such as the Friant-Kern Canal. 

The canal carries irrigation and drinking water 152 miles south from Millerton Lake to Kern County, and has seen its carrying capacity drop by 60 percent because of subsidence. The damage is also affecting a newly-rebuilt portion that runs through Eastern Tule GSA.  

“Our sense of urgency is not shared by those most responsible for the damage,” said Johnny Amaral, Friant Water Authority chief operating officer. “Friant believes it is wholly appropriate to view the subbasin surgically when looking for a final remedy for how this is going to go off in September.”

The Tule subbasin is the second in line for a probationary hearing following the Tulare Lake subbasin, which the board will take up April 16. 

The Kaweah, Kern, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota subbasins also had groundwater plans deemed inadequate. The Kaweah subbasin is slated to go before the board in November, Kern in January 2025 and Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota will be heard later in 2025.


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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