State board puts first groundwater basin on probation

April 16, 2024
Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water
A well on land owned by the J.G. Boswell Farming Company in the Tulare Lake subbasin gushes groundwater into a standpipe in this 2021 photo. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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The State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to put the Tulare Lake subbasin on probation during a precedent-setting meeting in Sacramento that stretched over nine hours. 

“This is a turning point. We are coming to terms with the reality of what this means especially in these areas that are so severely overdrafted,” said Laurel Firestone, one of five board members. “We’re doing this because we all recognize that we don’t have a choice.” 

The Water Board is the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which mandates overpumped groundwater basins bring aquifers into balance by 2040. 

Under probation, the Water Board will require flow meters to be installed for pumpers who use more than 500 acre feet of groundwater per year. Fees will also be implemented to recoup state costs. Those include $20 per acre foot of extracted water and $300 annual registration fees per well. 

If deficiencies in the subbasin’s plan aren’t fixed after a year, the Water Board could implement an interim plan, take over management of the subbasin and impose pumping limits.

The Tulare Lake subbasin covers all of Kings County. 

Four groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) managers in the Tulare Lake subbasin presented updates from a new groundwater plan that is nearly complete, which they claim addresses the deficiencies. Board members said they were encouraged and optimistic by the updates and acknowledged the work GSA staff have done up to this point. 

However, the revised plan was not completed in time for the hearing. 

Dorene D’Adamo, vice chair of the Water Board, said she was hopeful that a complete revision of the plan would have been in hand by Tuesday’s meeting. Because it wasn’t, D’Adamo said she was not comfortable delaying the decision and instead opted for probation. 

Advocates, water managers from other subbasins, farmers and public officials commented at the hearing. Many advocates supported the probationary status for Tulare Lake, including nonprofits Community Water Center, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Clean Water Action and Union of Concerned Scientists.  

Antonio Solorio, speaking on behalf of Westlands Water District, also called for probation saying that Westlands and its neighbors need to work to protect groundwater levels. 

Multiple farmers spoke out against probation, claiming the move could devastate small family farms, agricultural communities and local economies. 

Brian Medeiros, a first generation farmer, gave an impassioned plea to the board to consider how probation could impact the lives of all residents, including his own family which includes a four-year old son.

“When I ask my son what he wants to be when he grows up, he says he wants to be a farmer just like me,” Medeiros said. “Please consider that we need to protect the entirety of our community. I don’t want this agency or any other agency to take that dream away from him.”

There are three aquifers in the Tulare Lake Subbasin. The top layer, called the A-zone, is a shallow perched section about 100 feet below ground level. The B Zone contains the majority of domestic and agricultural wells, whereas the C-zone sits below a thick layer of Corcoran clay more than 700 feet below the surface. The C-zone is considered the main culprit behind the region’s extensive subsidence. 

In the Mid-Kings River GSA, which includes the City of Hanford, pumping caps were established in March, said Dennis Mills, manager of the GSA, at the hearing. Currently, 2 acre feet per acre is allowed to be pumped from the C-zone. 

“We are encouraged by the paradigm shift of reduction in pumping from the C-zone,” said Caroline Hackett, water resources engineer at the Water Board. 

The Tulare Lake subbasin’s plan to achieve sustainability was rejected twice by the state. Regulators didn’t believe it would solve one of the area’s biggest problems caused by over pumping – subsidence, or land sinking, which has impacted a huge swath of land.

State regulators were also concerned the Tulare Lake subbasin plan hadn’t done enough to protect drinking water wells from going dry or being contaminated and that the five groundwater agencies had not properly coordinated amongst themselves.

Several Tulare Lake agencies – and most other subbasins – held out hope the Water Board would employ the “good guy clause.” That clause allows the board to put individual groundwater agencies on probation, while sparing the larger subbasin. But the board decided against allowing any exceptions to probation because the negative impacts in the plan were not adequately described to begin with. 

Subsidence is also a major issue in the next region that will come before the board. The Tule subbasin is next door to the Tulare Lake subbasin, covering the southern half of the valley portion of Tulare County.

Farmers have pumped out groundwater so furiously there that a 33-mile section of the vital Friant-Kern Canal has sunk, crimping its carrying capacity by 60 percent. The sinking continues even after a $300 million repair project, prompting lawsuits and urgent pleas for help from the Water Board.

The Tule subbasin goes before the board Sept. 17.

Four other valley groundwater subbasins will come before the board as well. The Kaweah subbasin in Tulare County, will be called up in November, then the Kern subbasin will go before the board in January 2025. The Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota subbasins will have their cases heard later in 2025.


Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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