State Water Board reduces pumping fees by half but some say it’s still too high

March 19, 2024
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Members of the state Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously on Tuesday, March 19, to reduce pumping fees for groundwater users in subbasins that come under state control, known as “probationary status.”

The controversial fee was lowered from $40 per-acre-foot of pumped water to $20 per acre foot.  

The board will hold its first probationary hearing on the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County, on April 16.

The hearing stems from implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which mandates over pumped regions bring aquifers into balance by 2040. Groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) for Tulare Lake and five other San Joaquin Valley subbasins were rejected twice by the state as inadequate, which is why they are now coming before the Water Board to determine if they should be put into probationary status.

The other subbasins include, Tule, which comes before the board Sept. 17, the Kaweah, which will have a hearing in November, and the Kern, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota, which will both be heard in 2025.

The pumping fee would only be charged if the Water Board has to step in and administer a subbasin, meaning it would monitor the aquifer and set pumping limits. The pumping fee is intended to pay administrative costs for that work.

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.

Some public commenters at the Water Board meeting Tuesday expressed concern that the $20 fee is still too high and would bring in more money than the state would actually need for the work. 

“It seems far in excess what would be necessary to actually get the GSP (Groundwater
Sustainability Plan) in shape should we fall into probation,” said Jeof Wyrick, president of El Rico Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) and Henry Miller GSA, at the board meeting on Tuesday. El Rico is in the Tulare Lake subbasin and Henry Miller is in the Kern subbasin.

Wyrick floated a $3 per-acre-foot fee to the board in his comments. He said that amount would be more on par with actual management costs. 

Attorney Peter Kiel spoke on behalf of the Eastern Tule GSA in Tulare County and said he was disappointed in the lack of stakeholder engagement during the fee process. He emphasized that there should be more flexibility in the extraction fee and that subbasins that are first up for probationary hearings are going to have a tough time adapting with such little time. 

Johnny Gailey spoke on behalf of growers in the Tulare Lake subbasin. Gailey said he appreciated the reduction proposal but that $20-per-acre-foot still seems too high. 

Pumpers in the Tulare Lake subbasin would pay roughly $9-$13 million per year at the $20 fee which, “seems to be excessive,” said Gailey. 

State Water Board chair, Joaquin Esquivel, reassured commenters that the board is not looking to overcollect through its fees and that further adjustment is possible as staff keeps an eye on how much money comes in. 

Lastly, Nataly Escobedo Garcia, policy coordinator for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, asked the board to consider a fee waiver process for water systems that provide domestic water to disadvantaged communities and to provide a different fee structure for small, disadvantaged farmers. 

Jesse Vad, 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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