Ag Today October 13, 2016

Agencies form to enforce new water law

Landmark groundwater legislation’s first major deadline is June 2017


Seth Nidever, The Sentinel

HANFORD – Come June 30, 2017, every inch of Kings County ground in the San Joaquin Valley will have to be under the regulatory authority of a groundwater sustainability agency.

That’s the first major requirement and deadline included in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the historic state legislation passed in 2014 that for the first time regulates how much water farmers and cities in the state’s critically overdrafted groundwater basins can pump from below ground.

An audience of growers and others involved in Kings’ private sector-agricultural industry heard all of that and more Wednesday in Hanford at an update meeting hosted by the Kings County Farm Bureau.

A panel of four experts — three of them local, one of them from the state — told growers and dairy farmers what they can expect from the law’s implementation over the next 24 months.

Not much, according to Kings County Counsel Colleen Carlson, who was one of the panelists.

The others were Michael McKenzie, senior engineering geologist at the California Department of Water Resources; Eric Osterling, water resources manager at Kings River Conservation District; and Dennis Mills, general manager of the Kings County Water District.

The panelists explained that the rubber won’t really hit the road until the groundwater sustainability agencies come up with approved groundwater sustainability plans.

Those plans, due to the state Department of Water Resources by January 2020, will spell out just exactly how the agencies will curb Kings County groundwater overdraft and bring the land inside their jurisdictions into a sustainable water balance by 2040.

That means that for the first time, like a banker managing a bank account, the agencies — which primarily will oversee agricultural water use — will have to account for how much is taken out of the ground compared to how much is coming in the form of surface water supplies such as rain and canal deliveries from reservoirs located outside the county.

Not only that: They’ll also have to come up with a “sustainable yield” number that will determine just how much groundwater growers will be able to pump out to grow crops.

For now, local water districts and county officials are working to make sure all Kings County farmland is covered by locally controlled agencies in time for the June 2017 deadline.

If they don’t, it opens up the possibility of the state Department of Water Resources taking over local groundwater management and running it from Sacramento.

Agencies have already been proposed to cover large swaths of the county, but uncovered areas remain such as the huge acreage farmed by J.G. Boswell Co. southwest of Corcoran.

During the audience question period of Wednesday’s meeting, however, many questions were about sustainability plans that haven’t been formulated yet.

Among the unknowns:

  • What will the sustainable yield number be for local groundwater basins?
  • How much will each grower have to pay to fund the operations of the groundwater sustainability agencies?
  • Will growers pay based on how much groundwater they pump, or will they pay a flat per-acre fee?
  • How will the agencies know how much groundwater is being pumped out of the ground in their coverage area? Many agricultural wells in Kings don’t have meters on them.
  • If metering is required, how will the meters be read?

Panelists’ responded by essentially saying that there’s no way to answer many of the questions at this stage of the law’s implementation.

“We’re still way off from knowing what’s going to happen,” said Hanford farmer Chuck Draxler in an interview. “I still think the state is trying to get rid of agriculture. I hope I’m wrong.”

Draxler said growers and farming organizations “haven’t given up the fight” to increase surface water deliveries to Kings.

Increased water deliveries from rivers and reservoirs would help blunt the law’s effect, which many local observers fear could be huge.

“Am I reassured? Not really,” said Hanford dairy farmer Brian Medeiros in an interview. “I have no guidance how I’m going to plan for the next 10 years.”

Medeiros said the per-acre sustainable yield number or the amount of water allowed to be pumped out for each acre is the main worrying point.

If the number is too low, it could put some local farming operations out of business by forcing them to fallow most of their ground.

“Where are we going to sit at?” Medeiros said. “What are we going to be able to farm?”

“The [panelists] answered the questions as best they could,” said Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference in an interview. “Changes are coming. We don’t have those answers yet.”

Panelist McKenzie said that people should get involved once the sustainability group starts holding public meetings.

“You have to stay engaged,” Ference said.