Kings County Farm Bureau demands water board resignations

Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency board members listen to growers at an April meeting. Left to right: Board members Ernest Taylor; Mark Kairis, Barry McCutcheon; General Manager Dennis Mills; Legal Counsel Ray Carlson. Taylor and McCutcheon are also Kings County Water District board members where Mills is also general manager.

Kings County Farm Bureau blames one local water board for state intervention, demands heads roll

KINGS COUNTY – The fallout and recriminations in Kings County continue over the California Water Resources Control Board’s historic decision to place the Tulare Lake subbasin on probation for failing to come up with a cohesive plan to protect the region’s groundwater.

The Kings County Farm Bureau, which has already sued the Water Board over the probationary designation, is now demanding the resignations of the manager and entire board of directors of one local water board, saying they are at fault for putting the region in jeopardy with the Water Board.

The Farm Bureau is seeking to oust Kings County Water District General Manager Dennis Mills and all of the district’s board members. Mills and three of those board members also sit on the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA).

“Your failures have violated the law and the trust of your constituents, friends and neighbors,” a Farm Bureau letter states in regards to the board members and Mills. The Farm Bureau released the letter Monday and is asking all water users in Kings County to sign on to the letter and force a change in leadership of those two entities.

Mills and the Mid-Kings GSA were similarly called out at the El Rico GSA meeting on May 14. El Rico almost exclusively covers land owned by the farming giant J.G. Boswell Company, which also controls that board. 

A sinking feeling

The principal allegation against the water district and Mid-Kings GSA is that they refused to approve a last minute, draft groundwater plan that the five GSAs had hoped to present to the Water Board before the April 16 probationary hearing.

Mid-Kings refused to sign on to the draft plan, largely because it included an allowance for an additional 10 feet of subsidence, an allowance sought by El Rico GSA. Mills felt that would be a “no go” with Water Board staff, as huge swaths of land have already subsided, or sunk, from excessive over pumping.

There’s no guarantee that a new plan would have been done in time to be vetted by the Water Board staff and presented to the board. But at the April 16 hearing, Vice Chair Dorene D’Adamo lamented that without a new plan to consider, she felt compelled to vote for probation.

Probation means growers will have to register their wells at $300 each, buy and install flow meters and pay a $20-per-acre-foot extraction charge to the state. That’s on top of fees they already pay to their GSAs. After a year, if local GSAs can’t come up with an acceptable new plan, the state could step in and set pumping allotments and issue higher fees and fines.

But wait, that’s not all…

In another twist, the Kings County Water District has called a special meeting for Thursday, May 23 to consider withdrawing from Mid-Kings GSA and a joint powers agreement it operates with several other entities. It’s unclear which GSA would then cover the district, which is required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That meeting was canceled as General Manager Dennis Mills was out ill.

“I don’t think that is right or correct,” said grower Garrett Gilcrease, of the potential withdrawal. Gilcrease also serves as Farm Bureau vice president.

Attempts to reach Mills, out on a sick day according to an administrative assistant, by phone and email Tuesday were unsuccessful. SJV Water also reached out via text, email and/or phone to board members Barry McCutcheon, Ernest Taylor, Joe Freitas and Michael Murray but did not hear back from any. Freitas and Murray are new recruits to the board.

“The train is coming at us”

Other transgressions listed by the Farm Bureau against the districts include:

  • A failed Proposition 218 election that was beset by “ineffective communication, last-minute policy changes, and decision making done in a vacuum,” according to the Farm Bureau letter.Prop. 218’s are required when water districts raise land assessment fees. Growers handily defeated the land assessment fee, along with pumping fees of up to $95 an acre-foot that were meant to cover GSA administrative costs.
  • Mid-Kings GSA inappropriately limited pumping allocations in the shallowest aquifer, known as A zone, which most farms in the area rely on and is regularly recharged by the Kings River, the Farm Bureau letter states.
  • The Farm Bureau also claims Mid-Kings GSA violated its Joint Powers Authority (JPA) agreement with Kings County Water District, the City of Hanford, and County of Kings by not appointing alternate directors, failing to create a stakeholder advisory committee, not appointing a stakeholder to the board of directors, and violating the two-thirds requirement for specific votes.

“The train is coming at us with SGMA,” Gilcrease said. “We need an engaged board that is willing to figure out the problem, who will work within the JPA and SGMA to allow growers to farm as much as humanly possible as long as they can into the future. You can’t figure out something with the state if your local house isn’t in order. We don’t have that from the Kings County Water District.”

He acknowledged that SGMA has been law for a decade, and landowners should have gotten involved sooner. “That’s on us as growers,” he said.

But, he said, the GSA didn’t do a good enough job communicating either.

Mid-Kings GSA landowner Joaquin Contente agreed, calling information from Mid-Kings GSA about the Prop. 218 election “deceptive.” That eroded growers’ trust, he said. Combined with restrictive A zone pumping allocations, that has led to “many sleepless nights.”

“Now we have to live with the consequences,” Contente said. “I think there is validity to what Farm Bureau is doing.”

The resignation of Mills and the board members could create a ripple effect with other water agencies the district holds JPA agreements with.

Mills serves as the chairman of the Greater Kaweah GSA Technical Advisory Committee in the Kaweah Subbasin, and is an alternate board member. Taylor is a board member of the GSA. Greater Kaweah manager Mark Larsen opted to not comment on the situation.

SJV Water is a nonprofit, independent online news publication covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Lois Henry is the CEO/Editor of SJV Water. She can be reached at [email protected]. The website is www.sjvwater.org.

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