“We’re finished”: Some small Kings County farmers fear state’s groundwater law being used against them

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

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Last-ditch revisions being considered for the groundwater plan covering Kings County are not only “too little, too late” to avoid state intervention, according to one observer, they could be a death knell for smaller farmers.

“We’re finished,” small farmer Doug Freitas said, of how the proposed revisions would affect his farm. 

The heart of Freitas’ fear involves how pumping from the various aquifers beneath Kings County, designated as the Tulare Lake subbasin, may be divvied up.

Groundwater agencies in the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County.

In an effort to address state Water Resources Control Board concerns about potential damage to domestic wells, Tulare Lake water managers are considering restricting annual pumping amounts from the most shallow aquifer, dubbed the A-zone, to just a half acre foot, per acre. The A-zone aquifer is about 100 feet below ground level.

These changes to Tulare Lake’s groundwater plan are coming at nearly the last minute as water managers scramble to get revisions in to the Water Board by April 1 to be considered at the subbasin’s April 16 hearing on whether it should be put into probation – which would mean the state would set pumping limits.

Water Board staff has already issued a report recommending the Tulare Lake subbasin be put on probation.

“That’s why we’re there”

Freitas understands the stakes but said a half an acre foot per acre would not be enough to sustain his farm.

“My main water source is the A-zone and I don’t want to see that go away,” he said. “When my dad bought the land, he was tickled with the high water table, and that’s why we’re there.” 

He rallied fellow farmers and well drillers to argue against the proposed A-zone restrictions at a Feb. 29 meeting of the South Fork Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). 

South Fork Kings is one of five GSAs that cover the Tulare Lake subbasin. If enacted, the proposed restrictions would be applied throughout the subbasin.

Wes Harmon, a well driller with Big River Drilling, said that few domestic wells rely on A-zone water as it’s too contaminated. And because it’s above an impermeable layer of Corcoran clay, A-zone water can build up, killing off trees and vines as it swamps their root zones.

“I have customers along the (Kings) river who pump A water just to keep their trees dry once the river starts running,” Harmon said at the Feb. 29 meeting.

Disgusted and discouraged

Meanwhile, Freitas said, the proposed groundwater plan revisions would unfairly give farmers with wells in the deeper B-zone aquifer an annual allotment of two acre feet per acre. And wells in the super deep C-zone aquifer would be allotted three acre feet per acre per year. 

Excessive pumping from the C-zone aquifer, which sits below a thick layer of Corcoran clay more than 700 feet below the surface, is considered the main culprit behind the region’s extensive subsidence, according to a draft report by state Water Resources Control Board staff. 

Those deeper wells are also much more expensive to drill and are typically owned by larger farmers and corporate-owned farms, Freitas said. 

“I’m disgusted and discouraged,” Freitas said after the Feb. 29 meeting. “It’s easy to police the little guys, but who’s watching the big ones?” 

Dennis Mills, General Manager of Mid-Kings River GSA, acknowledged Freitas’ concerns.

“This kind of change is very hard, and the speed at which we are having to move leads to people feeling suspicious about whether the restrictions are fair,” he wrote in an email. “It seems like the larger farmers have been a little more engaged and understood this was coming.”

No escape

Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference said the gravity of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has been difficult to convey to growers. Even though it was passed 10 years ago, a lot of the “action” was behind the scenes as groundwater agencies were formed, policies discussed, technical information gathered.

“It was a lot of hurry up and wait,” he said. Because of that a lot of farmers weren’t as engaged as they should have been. “It’s been wildly frustrating.”

On that, Freitas agreed, wishing he’d been able to devote far more time to this process.

Whether the proposed aquifer zone pumping limitations, or SGMA in general, will hurt small farmers more than larger ones, Ference wasn’t sure.

“I mean, nobody is going to escape hard times with this one.”

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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