Water scarcity pits farmer against farmer in south San Joaquin Valley water district

June 23, 2023
by Lois Henry
The Wheeler-Ridge Maricopa Water Storage District was formed in 1959 to bring State Water Project water to farmers in the south San Joaquin Valley. SOURCE: Research Gate
Lois Henry

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California’s two prolonged droughts – along with greater surface and groundwater restrictions  – are pitting farmer against farmer in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

In the Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District farmers who rely on groundwater only are being asked to pay a share of costs for other farmers who contract for surface water from the State Water Project (SWP).

The proposed new groundwater service charge is an attempt to create “financial equity” between farmers who contract for state water and those who don’t, said Wheeler Ridge Engineer-Manager Sheridan Nicholas.

This is separate from potential groundwater fees set under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Wheeler Ridge covers about 147,000 acres south of Bakersfield. About 89,000 of those acres are farmed with 26,000 acres relying on groundwater only. 

“When we were getting a 100% allocation from the state, this wasn’t really an issue,” Nicholas said. 

That’s no longer the case and Wheeler Ridge farmers with state contracts have been paying between $600 and $1,000 per acre foot, depending on the water year.

The imported water has benefited all farmers in the district by bolstering the water table and reducing pumping, Nicholas said.

But groundwater-only farmers haven’t shared in those costs, Nicholas said. That’s the purpose behind the proposed groundwater charge.

Starting at $206 per acre foot pumped and going to $299 per acre foot over five years, the charge would not be insignificant.

For Materra Farming Company, one of the larger groundwater only operations in the district, the  fee would mean an extra $10 million a year, said Alex Shafer, a Materra representative, during a recent Wheeler Ridge board meeting.

Shafer said Materra isn’t opposed to paying some sort of fee but the one proposed is too high.

He and other farmers were also upset that the charge is a means to even out costs between growers rather than a direct cost-benefit fee.

“You’re supposed to only charge for what the benefit is,” Shafer said. “They’re going way over. By our calculations, the benefit of the water brought in by the district works out to no more than $60 per acre foot.”

He has suggested the district do an engineering study to analyze the surface water benefit to various growers but that hasn’t happened. 

“Instead, they want the groundwater users  to pay 20% of the district’s costs to give (surface water) growers a break,” Shafer said.

The Wheeler Ridge board has approved the groundwater charge pending the outcome of a Proposition 218 “protest vote.” That means a majority of returned ballots have to be “no” votes, otherwise the charge will pass. The board will hold a hearing on the returned ballots outcome July 12.

Shafer and other farmers don’t dispute that Wheeler Ridge has brought water into the region, about 8.5 million acre feet since it first began getting state deliveries in 1970.

They do dispute how much of a benefit that represents for their particular farms.

In Materra’s case, the land abuts Old River Road, so named because that’s where the Kern River once ran. Groundwater beneath that area is still recharged by river water, Shafer said.

Other farmers questioned how much imported water has helped the region overall.

Leftare Delis, with Delis Farms, said the imported water has been used mostly on lands that didn’t have adequate groundwater.

“If those acres had never been farmed, the groundwater wouldn’t have dropped so much,” he said.

Most of the imported water is used for irrigation and when there’s extra, he said,  it isn’t recharged in the district.

“If Wheeler-Ridge built recharge ponds by my ranch it might be different,” Delis said, noting his land is served by several creeks. “But when they (the district) do have extra water, they bank it over in the Kern Water Bank, not where my aquifer is.”

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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