Tea Pot Dome and Vandalia break away from GSA

(Lisa McEwen)

Two Tulare County water agencies vote to take control of their own groundwater destiny

TULARE COUNTY – Two water districts voted to break away from the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency Monday, June 3, clearing a path for them to form their own agencies and groundwater plans in the next six months.

The move allows the Tea Pot Dome and Vandalia water districts to distance themselves from Eastern Tule GSA, whose groundwater management practices and those of the other four GSAs in the Tule subbasin are coming under scrutiny and possible probation by the state Water Resources Control Board where a probationary hearing is set for Sept. 17.

Eastern Tule, in particular, has also been criticized for its groundwater accounting policies, which some have said allow overpumping to continue unabated.

The hearing comes after the state found the Tule subbasin’s initial two groundwater plans inadequate to protect domestic wells and stop rampant subsidence, or land sinking. Probation is the first step toward a possible state pumping takeover.

Vandalia Water District board member Dyson Schneider said while the district has appreciated the ability to work with surrounding landowners during the first ten years of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the time has come to part ways.

“It has become increasingly clear that our district needs to take direct responsibility for groundwater management in our district,” he wrote in a prepared statement.

A large swath of Eastern Tule’s lands are undistricted, meaning growers there are solely reliant on groundwater. Conversely, Tea Pot Dome and Vandalia landowners, the majority of whom grow citrus, almonds and pistachios in the eastern Tulare County flatlands, have access to surface water. Tea Pot Dome receives from the Friant-Kern Canal, which carries water 152 miles from Millerton Lake to Kern County. Vandalia landowners get their surface water from the Tule River.

Excessive groundwater pumping, and resulting subsidence, is the crux of a lawsuit brought by Friant Water Authority against Eastern Tule. It claims the GSA’s policies have been lax, allowing excessive pumping to further damage the canal, which had to be rebuilt after subsidence caused a 33-mile sag that crimped its carrying capacity by 60%.

Neither district exiting Eastern Tule addressed those issues Monday.

Tea Pot Dome board member Matt Leider said autonomy will allow the district to take better care of its landowners.

“Taking independent responsibility for groundwater management will allow us to adopt rules and regulations for groundwater use that more directly align with our district’s unique position of being water-balanced, due to our significant surface water supplies,” Leider said.

Leider was referring to a joint agreement the two districts have with Lower Tule River Irrigation District for surface water delivery operations, which they plan to expand to groundwater management. Such synergies “do not exist within ETGSA,” a press release stated..

Coordination among GSAs in a subbasin is critical for groundwater plan approval by the state board to either avoid or exit probation. To that end, Tea Pot Dome, Vandalia and Lower Tule are also considering submitting a joint groundwater plan to the state.

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The Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency boundaries, black hashmarks, will have to be redrawn after two water districts near its northeastern corner voted to leave the GSA. (Lisa McEwen)

Eastern Tule general manager Rogelio Caudillo said he was surprised to learn of Tea Pot Dome and Vandalia’s decisions to withdraw from the GSA.

“Regardless of what the districts decide, ETGSA will continue to work with Tea Pot Dome and Vandalia to sustainably manage the Tule Subbasin, and we will continue to work with our landowners and neighbors to ensure appropriate coverage for the districts’ areas under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” he wrote in an email.

Paul Gosselin, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources, said in an interview before Tea Pot Dome and Vandalia’s exits that a key tenet of SGMA is local control. Over the last decade of the law, water agencies have adjusted boundaries, partnerships and agreements with each other in their quest toward sustainability.

“We have over 300-plus agencies that cover every conceivable arrangement,” he said in a May 29 interview. “It’s really up to the locals. We help them stay in compliance on the mechanics of adjusting what agencies are in which basins and how they’re set up. We don’t take a view on how they do it as long as basins are fully covered by one or more GSAs.”

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