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California’s crop-rich region may fall under state monitoring to maintain groundwater flow

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California’s crop-rich region may fall under state monitoring to maintain groundwater flow

California may step in to regulate groundwater use in part of the crop-rich San Joaquin Valley, a first of its kind that comes after a decade of lawmakers tasking local communities with carefully managing the precious but often overused resource.

The dispute concerns control of an agriculturally dependent area where state officials say local water agencies have not come up with a plan strong enough to keep water flowing sustainably into the future. The state Water Resources Control Board is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday to decide whether to place the area on probation, which means state officials, not local, will temporarily monitor and limit the amount of water that can be pumped from the ground.

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“It’s a huge deal,” said Dusty Furness, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau, which represents regional farmers. “What you gain from local control is the ability to build groundwater recharge projects and some flexibility as to how the water is used, transported and handled or not.”

California-Groundwater

Sandbags are stacked around a well in anticipation of the Kings River flooding in the Lemoore Island area, California, on April 19, 2023. California officials are considering whether to monitor groundwater use in the fertile San Joaquin Valley under a landmark law. In order to protect the flow of water to homes and farms. The hearing on Tuesday, April 16, 2024 before the State Water Resources Control Board is the first of its kind since California passed the Groundwater Management Act a decade ago. (AP Photo/Jay Si Hong)

The state board wouldn’t have the local expertise or staff to do that, Ference said.

“It would be like this: ‘This is the amount of pumping we authorize. “Do what you can with it.”

The hearing is seen as a test of how California’s groundwater rules will work 10 years after they were passed by lawmakers. These limits came after years of over-pumping and drought, which led to a host of problems ranging from drying up of residential wells and submerging lands. The goal was to make the most hazardous groundwater basins sustainable.

Since then, local communities have formed groundwater sustainability agencies and developed management plans. In the Tulare Lake Basin, five local agencies worked on one proposal, but it was rejected last year by the state Department of Water Resources over concerns about lowering groundwater levels, sinking land and deteriorating groundwater quality.

If the state water board steps in after Tuesday’s hearing, officials could require anyone extracting more than a minimum from groundwater to report how much they’re taking and pay a fee for it. The state could also require larger pumps to install and use meters to measure water use.

The Tulare Lake basin covers an area of ​​Kings County, which is home to about 150,000 people and is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The county is a major producer of milk, pistachios, cotton and processed tomatoes, according to a county agricultural report.

It is also home to Tulare Lake, a large, dry basin that fills with water in rainy years. The lake recently resurfaced in 2023 after heavy winter rains that flooded farms and roads.

Each agency has been talking about what to do next, said Doug Freitas, an almond farmer who owns property in areas governed by three different groundwater agencies. He said he was aware of the state’s groundwater law, but like most small farmers, he was so busy trying to make ends meet that he couldn’t anticipate the impact.

“As a farmer, my opinion is we need more time,” Freitas said. “I would like to go to this meeting and ask for mercy and ask them to let us back to the table.”

One agency, the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency, has proposed a vote April 23 on imposing fees on landowners and limiting pumping. The move has met with some resistance, and agency director Dennis Mills recently told residents that something must be done if they want to try to prevent the state from interfering.

“They will not accept any more promises at this stage,” Mills said. “Just a revised plan is not good enough. They need to see concrete steps in terms of how we deal with these matters.”

Then there are people like Joaquin Contente, a longtime dairy farmer in Kings County, who said pump fees and caps cause him problems, whether imposed by local or state officials. He relies on groundwater to grow alfalfa, which he feeds his 800 livestock.

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“I know a lot of people lose sleep over this, because I’m one of them,” Contente said.

Ference, the Farm Bureau director, said he supports local control so farmers can have a say in what happens and local communities can invest in local recharge projects.

“This is a county-wide community problem, and if it is not managed properly, it will be disastrous,” he added.

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