State board to vote on reducing extraction fees for probationary basins

March 13, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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On the eve of its first subbasin probationary hearing, the state Water Resources Control Board announced it will vote on whether to reduce a controversial groundwater extraction fee. 

The board will vote at its March 19 meeting on whether to cut the fee from $40 to $20-per-acre-foot for well owners in a subbasin placed on probation. 

It will hold its first probationary hearing on the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County, on April 16. Then the Tule subbasin, in the southern half of the valley portion of Tulare County, will come up for hearing Sept. 17.

The extraction fee would only be charged if the Water Board had to step in and administer a subbasin in cases where it finds local groundwater agencies aren’t up to the job.

The $40-fee had caused a great deal of angst for irrigators not only because they have never had to pay a fee for groundwater, which is considered a property right, but also because of the massive cost.

In the Tulare Lake subbasin, farmers pumped 516,716 acre feet in 2022, according to the most recent numbers submitted to the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act annual reporting website. At $40-an-acre foot, that would cost farmers $20.6 million.

In the Tule subbasin, 662,300 acre feet was pumped in 2022, which would cost nearly $22.5 million.

“A reduction in fees is welcome,” said Mark Larsen, General Manager of the Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency. But those fees would only be charged for subbasins that are put in probationary status, which he said Kaweah is hoping to avoid.

The Kaweah subbasin is scheduled for its probation hearing in November 2024. Farmers there pumped 842,700 acre feet in 2022. At $40 an acre foot, that would cost  $33.7 million.

What, many irrigators had asked, would the Water Board be doing to justify charging that much money?

Administration expenses.

In 2017, the extraction fee was listed as $30 an acre foot, then rose to $40.  

It includes an annual base fee and a volumetric fee, which Water Board staff is now recommending be cut so the total new fee would be $20 per acre foot.

“This adjustment balances revenue stability for the program with the uncertainty about whether the State Water Board will place any specific basin on probation, how long a basin might remain on probation, how much revenue would be collected from the basin(s), and other factors,” states the proposal to lower the fee.

Besides the Tulare Lake, Tule and Kaweah subbasins, the Kern, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota subbasins also had groundwater plans deemed inadequate and will come before the Water Board starting in January 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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