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Mid-Kings River GSA Holds Meeting Ahead of State Probationary Hearing

It was a big week in Hanford, California for the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency (MKRGSA), one of the five Groundwater Sustainability Agencies in the Tulare Lake Subbasin. Three identical public workshops were held where landowners learned what the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is all about, what MKRGSA’s plan is going forward and how this plan is going to impact farmers in this area with groundwater pumping restrictions and costs. The reason I am writing about this, and the reason so many other people outside of the area are watching, is because the Tulare Lake Subbasin is the FIRST subbasin that is having a formal State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) Probationary Hearing. This Probationary Hearing was triggered when the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) declared last year that the Tulare Lake Subbasin Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) was “inadequate.” The hearing is scheduled for April 16, 2024.


As explained by MKRGSA manager Dennis Mills, “The State Board’s conclusion is that Ag/Industrial pumpers [which use 93%of the groundwater pumped in the MKRGSA] are causing undesirable results in the area, and they want those pumpers to either cut back so impacts do not occur or pay to mitigate the impacts on other users.”


A decision by the State Board to put the Tulare Lake Subbasin into probation essentially takes away control of the subbasin from the local GSAs and puts it into the hands of the State. The law allows the State to impose a $300 per well annual fee and charge $20 per acre foot of groundwater extraction. The approach of the State is to eliminate “undesirable results” through pumping restrictions only.


The clear objective of the Tulare Lake GSAs is to maintain local control. An updated GSP is near completion and will be resubmitted to the State Board before the April 16, 2024, Probationary Hearing. A domestic well mitigation program has been included in the new GSP which will have the GSA pay for new domestic wells for those whose wells go dry because of falling groundwater levels. It will also include specific groundwater pumping caps on farmers.


To fund these programs, the MKRGSA has established two different fees: A land-based fee of $25 per acre and a pumping fee of $95 per acre foot for water extracted above the Corcoran clay and a $35 per acre foot fee for water pumped below the clay. Both of these fees are subject to a Proposition 218 vote/protest from landowners in the GSA. The specific purpose of the workshops was to answer questions and take comments about the fees. The workshops were well attended, and as can be imagined, there were lots of questions and comments.


The updated plan came together recently and very quickly without much involvement from the stakeholders. The Tulare Lake Subbasin GSAs’ approach in the original GSP envisioned that they had a much longer period of time to reach sustainability. Manager Mills described a fundamental misunderstanding that the locals had about what the expectations of the State were for an acceptable GSP. This is understandable because this really is the first rodeo for both the local stakeholders and the State. What is clear here is that the threat of State intervention is a powerful motivator to getting difficult and expensive changes made in the GSPs. I would argue that if the State’s desire is to actually achieve groundwater sustainability in the least damaging way possible, the threat of State intervention is much more effective than ACTUAL State intervention would be. Familiarity with basic human nature will tell you that if the State Board on April 16 actually puts the Tulare Lake Subbasin on probation, what incentive would the locals have to support adopting the Proposition 218 fees to implement their local plan on April 23?


Clearly, the Tulare Lake Subbasin GSAs have made mistakes and been slow to act, but they are now acting. That positive momentum needs to be recognized and encouraged by the State Board. A vote by the State Board in April to put the Tulare Lake Subbasin in probation would be demoralizing to the very people who have stepped up to meet the SGMA challenge. Other inadequate subbasins are watching. They too are substantially updating their GSPs to meet the concerns of the State. While it is Tulare Lake Subbasin that is subject of immediate concern, how the State Board handles this case will reverberate throughout California.

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs

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