Tulare County agency accused of failing to curb overpumping

Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency board members spar over requiring well meters. Board members left to right: Matt Leider, John Michael Domondon, John Corkins, Steve Kisling, Eric Borba and Don Weyhrauch. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water

Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency eventually votes to require landowners to install well meters and report their extractions; agency hopes to prevent a state takeover of the subbasin

TULARE COUNTY – Fireworks were already popping between board members of a key Tulare County groundwater agency recently over an 11th hour attempt to rein in pumping in the severely overdrafted area.

The main issue at the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) meeting June 6 was whether to require farmers in subsidence prone areas to install meters and report their extractions to the agency, which is being blamed for almost single handedly putting the entire subbasin in jeopardy of a state takeover.

“I don’t know why we’re sitting here massaging this thing knowing damn well the state told us to do this,” said Eastern Tule board member Matt Leider of requiring the meters.

But fellow board member Eric Borba pooh poohed the need for urgency, suggesting the board take things “one step at a time.”

“I think a voluntary program is a great idea,” he said. “You all want to use the stick when we should use the carrot.”

With a probationary hearing set for Sept. 17 at the state Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), board member Don Weyhrauch felt the soft approach was pointless.

With a probationary hearing set for Sept. 17 at the state Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), board member Don Weyhrauch felt the soft approach was pointless.

 “A carrot or a stick will not make any difference at this stage,” he shot back at Borba.

“It does for farmers,” Borba said.

In the end, the Eastern Tule board voted 6-0 to require all landowners in the subsidence management area along the canal to meter their wells and report extractions by January 1.

That requirement does not extend to landowners in the rest of Eastern Tule, just the subsidence management area.

Frustration among board members during the 45-minute meter discussion was evident.

“We’ve literally been told a gazillion times now to meter everything in the subsidence zone,” said a clearly exasperated Leider, who also serves as a board member on the Tea Pot Dome Water District. “It’s the month of June. Our hearing is in September. I think you’re just asking for trouble. I don’t see anybody in this room that has the ability to turn the tide of the state board, and that’s one of the reasons why Tea Pot has exercised its right to leave the GSA.”

He referred to votes taken June 3 by Tea Pot Dome and neighboring Vandalia Water District to leave the Eastern Tule GSA and form their own groundwater agency to show the state they are acting in good faith.

The hope is the state will exempt “good actors” if the board puts the rest of the Tule subbasin on probation, the first step toward a possible state takeover of regional pumping. The Water Board did not extend the good actor clause in its vote to put the Tulare Lake subbasin (basically all of Kings County) on probation April 16. And Water Board staff have recommended against any exemptions in the Tule subbasin as well.

Numerous critics, including the Friant Water Authority, have accused Eastern Tule of dragging its feet to stem over pumping and employing questionable groundwater accounting policies that not only incentivized more pumping but could have significantly enriched select landowners with surface water supplies.

Eastern Tule has responded that it is working hard to get farmers who’ve never paid water fees nor land assessments to comply with the state’s new groundwater mandate.

There are only five water districts within Eastern Tule including Tea Pot Dome, Vandalia and the Saucelito, Terra Bella and Porterville irrigation districts. The Kern-Tulare Irrigation District was part of the GSA but left earlier this year to form its own GSA.

That means the vast majority of land in Eastern Tule is not in a water district, which collects assessments and fees from farmers to import water. Instead, most Eastern Tule farmers have always relied almost exclusively on groundwater.

“The problem is we’ve got some people out there who won’t tell us what’s going on,” said Eastern Tule board member John Corkins, who represents farmers in those non-districted lands. “And we need teeth like this to go after them. We want to get the bad actors first, and then the good actors will come along.”

He favored the ultimately successful motion to require meters on the wells in the subsidence zone.

Others felt that was too little, too late.

Metering all wells was recommended by Eastern Tule’s own advisory committee, noted John Michael Domondon, a board member on the Lower Tule Irrigation District.

And the Water Board staff report that has urged probation for the entire Tule subbasin – largely because of ongoing damage to the Friant-Kern Canal – plainly recommended meters on all ag wells.

In a letter to the Eastern Tule board, Friant Water Authority chief operating officer Johnny Amaral criticized what he felt was the GSA’s lackadaisical approach to arresting subsidence, which caused a 33-mile sag that forced the construction of a parallel canal to maintain water deliveries. And now that new canal is sinking from continued over pumping, prompting Friant Water Authority to sue Eastern Tule earlier this year.

“Unless the ETGSA board provides clear direction to its staff to come back with amendments consistent with the State Water Board staff recommendations, the record of this meeting will further demonstrate to the State Water Board that ETGSA is unable and unwilling to sustainably manage groundwater in its jurisdiction,” Amaral wrote.

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