Greater Kaweah GSA puts a price on pumping groundwater

Groundwater Sustainability Agency proposes pumping limits, fees for agriculture wells east of Visalia

TULARE COUNTY – Farms and agriculture operations east of Visalia will be charged fees for the water they use beginning this fall. Those unaware of the new fees and groundwater rules will have a little more time to get acquainted. 

On April 15, the Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) extended the public review and comment deadline on its draft rules and regulations establishing groundwater pumping limits and overpumping fees for its landowners. Initially scheduled to end on April 26, the Greater Kaweah GSA made the determination to extend the deadline to May 12 “to give landowners ample time to provide comments.”

The Greater Kaweah GSA drafted the rules and regulations late last year and opened a 90-day public review period at its Jan. 26 meeting. The document included a proposed cap on groundwater pumping and associated fees for each property with a production or agriculture well. The GSA covers about 6,610 wells, of which 2,300 are considered ag wells, in the communities of Exeter, Farmersville, Woodlake, Ivanhoe, Lemon Cove and surrounding areas. These areas must cut water use by 34,400 acre feet per year in order to stabilize and sustain groundwater levels by 2040, a requirement of a 2014 law addressing the state’s dwindling water supply. The Greater Kaweah is one of three GSAs in the Kaweah Subbasin, fed by the Kaweah and St. John’s Rivers, which must work together to cut water use by 80,000 acre feet per year.

“This is a draft document and much of the numbers are subject to change,” said Diana Zegarra, engineering technician with the Greater Kaweah GSA. 

Under the plan, each parcel will be allocated a base supply of water (referred to in the document as “sustainable yield allocation”) landowners will be allowed to pump out of the ground per acre in a given year. The base supply will depend on estimated conditions of the upcoming water year, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 of the following year. Greater Kaweah’s board is planning on implementing the cap and fees beginning on Oct. 1, 2022. 

“By having it take effect with the new water year it allows growers to plan accordingly,” Zegarra said. 

The amount of water each parcel is using will be determined by either flow meters installed on wells or data on evapotranspiration, the amount of water that evaporates into the air or is absorbed by vegetation, obtained from satellite technology. If an owner does not elect for a flow meter at the beginning of the water year, the GSA will automatically calculate their water use from the satellite images. In drought years, the base amount will be reduced and in wet years the amount will be increased. 

Once the baseline for the GSA has been set, Greater Kaweah will allow each landowner to use up to 10 acre inches (about 270,000 gallons of water per acre) per year, per acre over the base supply without being charged any fees. If a landowner pumps anywhere from 11 acre inches to 1.8 acre feet per acre (an acre foot of water is about 326,000 gallons) they will be charged $75 per acre foot, known as Tier I. Anything from 1.8 to 2.8 acre feet will be charged at a rate of $125 per acre foot, known as Tier II. Water pumped beyond 2.8 acre feet will enter a penalty tier and be charged $500 per acre foot. 

Landowners can use as much surface water as they have access to as long as the amount of surface water they received and the date they received it can be verified by an irrigation district. The idea is that tiered pumping will be reduced every five years until the GSA reaches sustainability, meaning groundwater levels stop dropping and the subbasin is sinking more water into the ground than it pumps out. Those who fallow land will be able to carry over the remainder of their base supply in the first five years but can only carry over 10% of its base supply in any single year.

Water may also be transferred between two different landowners through the use of pumping credits as long as the properties are within a 4-mile radius of the original property and all located within the boundaries of the Greater Kaweah. The GSA’s board supported transfers between bordering GSAs, such as transferring credits from the MidKaweah to the Greater Kaweah, but only if both properties are owned by the same individual or entity and will be handled “on a case-by-case basis through negotiation of form of agreement deemed acceptable by Legal Counsel.” Any land currently not being irrigated would not be eligible for any Tier 1 or 2 water. 

Landowners can also earn groundwater credits by sinking water into the aquifer through a recharge basin. Zegarra said the GSA has yet to launch its Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) program which will require any recharge systems to verify how much water is being put back into the ground. All credits must be applied for before transferring and both landowners will be required to install meters and report their data as part of the transfer agreement. A property can only transfer water in the first five years. 

Absent from the pumping cap rules and regulations are the 2,250 domestic wells and 162 public water systems within the Greater Kaweah, including the cities of Exeter, Farmersville, Woodlake, Ivanhoe Public Utility District, Lemon Cove Sanitary District, water districts for Kings County, Lakeside, St. John’s and community services districts for Patterson Tract and Tract 92 near Visalia. These public water systems, estimated to use 1.2 to 1.4 acre feet per acre, “will instead be addressed through separate policy documents and/or agreements,” according to the GSA. 

“Right now we are only focused on commercial agriculture wells, factories, dairies, anyone using more than 2 acre feet per acre per year,” Zegarra said. “We haven’t started dealing with domestic wells yet.”

While the plan has yet to be solidified, the extraction fees are planned to be used for projects outlined in the Greater Kaweah’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) to help bring the subbasin closer to sustainability by 2040. The Greater Kaweah’s plan was one of eight Valley GSPs deemed incomplete by the state in January and must be resubmitted with revisions by July 27 before they are fully approved by the state. The cap and fees outlined in the proposed rules and regulations are part of the Greater Kaweah’s approach to gradually reduce groundwater pumping in order to reach sustainability by 2040. Other ideas include using the funds to buy up and fallow land, water conservation and incentive programs, purchasing surface water and coordinated activities with other programs, such as the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program (ILRP) designed to reduce runoff from agricultural uses into rivers, streams and lakes. Those would likely trigger a Proposition 218 process allowing landowners to block the uses as long as one more than 50% submitted protest letters. 

Greater Kaweah is also offering a webinar at 1 p.m. on May 4 to explain the pumping cap, the latest changes and updates and plans for the GSA to release a new water dashboard to help landowners visualize their monthly crop water use in preparation for the changes. 

For more information on the Greater Kaweah GSA, call or text  (559) 302-9987 or visit greaterkaweahgsa.org. The Greater Kaweah board meets at 1 p.m. on the second Monday of the month at 2975 N. Farmersville Blvd. in Farmersville.

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