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Landowners Pushback in Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency

At the end of September, the Board of Directors of the Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GKGSA) took action to establish groundwater consumption allocations and fees for accessing those allocations. The GKGSA Board has a habit of going into a closed, confidential session at the beginning of Board meetings and then coming out of those confidential sessions with positions that then get adopted in short order in open session without much opportunity for the public to give input. The decision on September 27 went that way.

While there was always a disclaimer mentioned by GKGSA staff that the Board had the final say, and therefore numbers could change, there was every indication that the allocation that would be put in place for the period of October 1, 2022, through September 30, 2023, would be a total of 2.7 acre-feet per acre and that some percentage of precipitation would also be added to that allocation. The fee amounts that had been indicated were that the first 10 inches per acre would be free, the second 10 inches would be $75 per acre-foot and the remaining 12.4 inches would cost $125 per acre-foot. The GKGSA Board action on September 27 to adopt the 2.7 acre-feet, divided into tiers, was expected. However, the removal of the precipitation allocation and the increase of fees to $125 for tier 1 and $250 for tier 2 were not expected. As you can imagine, as word of this decision got out to the farmers, there was a strong reaction. This is a major change in cost calculation, done without public input and at the last minute.

In defense of the GKGSA Board, the other two GSAs in the Kaweah Subbasin are putting a lot of pressure on GKGSA to reduce pumping because of the impacts of that pumping on their GSAs.

What can be done?

There is a universal acknowledgement that groundwater pumping in the Kaweah Subbasin has to be reduced. Most farmers are dealing with well problems caused by declining water levels. Every subbasin must submit an annual report to the Department of Water Resources, which lists a “change in storage” in the subbasin. The last two years have been drought years, with the Kaweah subbasin reporting a -520,000 acre-foot change in water year 2021 and a -418,000 acre-foot change in storage in water year 2020. So, the problem is real.

The Groundwater Sustainability Plan of Greater Kaweah does list a lot of projects that are designed to bring in more water and that is certainly part of the long-term answer, but short-term, the quickest way to reduce pumping is to pay farmers to fallow. The Delta View Water Association (DVWA) was formed to represent farmers in the GKGSA and has been promoting a plan to have farmers bid using a Dutch auction for how much money they would need to be paid to fallow their ground. The new fees imposed by the GKGSA will generate nearly $40 million. The fees that the farmers expected to have to pay would generate about $18 million. DVWA estimates that for a payment of about $1,000 per acre, farmers would be willing to fallow some ground and $15,000,000 would fallow 15,000 acres, saving more than 43,000 acre-feet of groundwater.

There was another GKGSA Board meeting this past week and more than one hundred people showed up. DVWA, supported by a number of farmers, made these points to the Board. Later on in the meeting, the Board members did direct their staff to evaluate the points made by DVWA to see if some modifications could be made and if a short-term fallowing program could be implemented.

I realize that this information is very local, but there is a lot of dairy production in the Kaweah Subbasin. Furthermore, this story illustrates the challenge of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). At its core, SGMA is about allocating pain. It is necessary. The problems are real, but the impacts are not evenly spread out to all landowners. It is unfortunate that we are in a serious drought as SGMA is being implemented. But that is reality. If you are in a good water area, be thankful, but please be supportive of collective efforts to bring in more surface water for your neighbor who may not be as blessed as you are. I do see folks really trying to put together solutions that will work for everyone.

The government has a role here, too. There will need to be significant public financing to both build new water supply infrastructure and also help fund land fallowing programs. I am aware of a number of efforts to advance these programs.

One thing I have discovered in life is that you do not so much solve problems as you outlast them. You keep working at it and eventually progress is made. But in the final analysis, God is in control and he knows what we need.

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs

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