East Tule GSA to charge farmers for pumping water

Groundwater Sustainability Agency is holding an Oct. 1 meeting to determine if it will charge a $4.92 per acre-foot fee for all farmers who do not have access to surface water

PORTERVILLE – Farmers whose only access to water is pumping from their own well will get their first glimpse at what the state’s new groundwater management law will cost them next month.

On Oct. 1, the East Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency (ETGSA) will hold a public hearing to discuss a groundwater extraction fee for property owners who rely on groundwater to irrigate their crops. The meeting is open to the public, not just those affected by the fee or those within the boundaries of the GSA, and will be held at 2 p.m. via video conference at us02web.zoom.us/j/89646217669. You can also join the meeting via telephone by calling 1-669-900-9128. The meeting ID number is 896 4621 7669.

The ETGSA encompasses the city of Porterville and the unincorporated communities of Terra Bella, Ducor and Richgrove near the Tulare-Kern County line, three irrigation districts in Porterville, Saucelito, and Terra Bella as well as three water districts in Teapot Dome, Tulare-Kern and Vandalia. Those entities have worked out a monthly increase or annual assessment to cover the cost of paying for their portion of the GSA’s $1.5 million budget for 2020-21.

More than 50% of the land within the GSA’s boundaries are in the “white area,” meaning they rely solely on groundwater pumping. White areas do not receive surface water as part of an irrigation district and do not receive water from a water supply agency, such as a municipal or community water system.

The GSA also falls in an area where there is a significant level of subsidence in the Friant-Kern Canal, the primary source of surface water conveyance delivering water to 15,000 small farms on the Valley’s east side.

The problem is most pronounced in the Deer Creek region between Terra Bella and Pixley. At one point, the canal dropped five inches in five months, illustrated by canal water almost lapping up against the bottom of a bridge on Avenue 96. The more than 3 foot drop in as many years reduced the flow of the canal by 60% from a average flow of 2,500 cfs to 1,600 cfs, effectively cutting off supply to the lower third of the canal’s water users.

In December the regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency overseeing the canal, commented on eight Tule GSA’s groundwater sustainability plans to reduce water use and subsidence but allowed for the possibility of more subsidence over the next five years. The plans were due in January and are part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, often referred to as “SiGMA”. Passed in 2014, the state law requires overdrafted sub-basin’s such as the Kaweah and Tule river watersheds in Tulare County, to create, monitor and enforce plans to prevent further dips in groundwater levels. ETGSA estimates its subbasin is overdrafted by 61,000 acre-feet per year. The bureau predicted the plan may result in the land along the canal dropping another three feet, reducing capacity of the canal to just 30% of its original design. That’s 10% worse off than now due to pumping from farms not served by the canal.

In order to pay for the overdrafted subbasin’s oversight, ETGSA decided to charge those in the white area a fee of $4.92 per acre-foot for the second half of the current fiscal year ending in June 2021 and penalties for going beyond their average water use since 1992. Beginning in 2021-22, the fee would double to $9.84 per acre-foot to cover the cost of the whole year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water or enough to soak an acre of land under a foot of water.

General manager Rogelio Caudillo said the fee is based on the calculation white area landowners use slightly less than an acre-foot of water per acre per year. There are about 132,000 acres of white area in the ETGSA, meaning the $4.92 beginning in January would generate $759,605 to operate the GSA. The breakdown of the fee would be $1.61 for administration, $1.78 for professional services, $0.65 for water accounting, and $0.88 for technical monitoring.

For example, if someone owned 10 acres of land, they are expected to use 9.6 acre-feet of water per year, which would cost them just under $95 per year. This is not the fee for water over the average 0.96 acre-feet per acre. If someone were to use 1.24 acre-feet per year, the fee would then jump up to more than $200 per acre-foot. Using the example of 10 acres, that landowner would now be paying more than $650 per year. That is, until 2035, when landowners will not be allowed to go over the average at all. If they do, the penalty is $500 per acre-foot and the baseline is lowered by the amount the landowner went over the previous year. In that scenario, the landowner may only get a baseline of 0.68 acre-feet per acre per year. If he were to maintain his average water use, the 10-acre landowner would now be paying about $5,000 per year.

Caudillo said many GSAs are in a better situation because they have more access to surface water or are managed by a single entity. He said the ETGSA’s situation is more complex, and so the formula is more complicated than solutions proposed by surrounding GSAs.

Written comments can be submitted online at easterntulegsa.com/groundwaterextractionfee. For more information on the Eastern Tule GSA and Sustainable Groundwater Management Act please visit: easterntulegsa.com.

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