State may take over Tule subbasin for overpumping in Tulare County

Friant-Kern Canal sign along the canal - Photo by Rigo Moran

Second San Joaquin Valley groundwater subbasin recommended for state takeover according to new Water Resources Control Board report

CENTRAL VALLEY – The Friant-Kern Canal was called out specifically as one of the reasons the state should take over pumping in the Tule groundwater subbasin in Tulare County.

The recommendation was contained in a recently released staff report to the Water Resources Control Board.

While the report stated groundwater management plans covering the subbasin didn’t adequately address subsidence and continued depletion of the aquifer and degradation of water quality in general, it also noted the significant harm to the Friant-Kern Canal, which brings water 152 miles south from Millerton Lake to Arvin.

Excessive overpumping caused land beneath a 33-mile stretch of the Friant-Kern Canal to collapse, creating a sag that reduced the canal’s carrying capacity south of Pixley by 60%.

The Friant Water Authority, which manages the canal on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation, has sued the Eastern Tule Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), alleging its policies have allowed farmers to continue over pumping causing greater subsidence beneath the canal than the two entities had agreed to in 2020.

The sinking canal also didn’t escape the state’s notice.

A draft report to the State Water Resources Control Board, the enforcement arm of California’s groundwater law, states that plans to control overpumping in the region are so poor they will likely continue allowing harm to drinking wells and other critical infrastructure “such as canals (e.g., Friant-Kern Canal).”

The report recommends the state put the subbasin, which covers the southern half of Tulare County’s valley portion, into “probationary status.” That would put the state in charge on an interim basis while groundwater agencies have year to alter their plans to address concerns.

Under that interim status, the state could set pumping amounts for farmers, require  them to install well meters, pay up to $40 per acre foot extracted and issue steep fines for noncompliance.

The Water Board will hold a hearing on the draft report at 9 a.m. Sept. 17 in Sacramento. The public has until May 7 to submit comments on the draft report (see sidebar).

This is a repeat, essentially, of what has already occurred in the Tulare Lake subbasin, which covers Kings County. A draft report also recommends Tulare Lake be put on probation.

A probation hearing for that subbasin is scheduled for April 16. Four other valley subbasins, Kern, Kaweah, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota, will also likely have probation hearings. Kaweah is set for November 2024, with the others going into 2025.

The recommendation for the Tule subbasin to be put into probation did not come as a surprise to some area water managers.

“It is clear to me that they have a good handle on the big issues facing the subbasin,” said Eric R. Quinley, general manager of Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District.

Delano-Earlimart has invested $43 million in recharge basins, the potential of which cannot be realized because of continued excessive groundwater pumping by landowners in surrounding groundwater agencies. Many of those farmers are on ground outside of water districts and don’t pay to import water, as farmers in Delano-Earlimart and other districts do.

“We should have much higher levels of groundwater, but it will continue to go down even though we’re putting water in because of pumping happening elsewhere,” he said.

Protecting canals and other infrastructure is a key focus of the state’s groundwater law, which mandates regions bring aquifers back into balance, meaning more water isn’t pumped out than goes back into the ground.

Friant Water Authority Chief Operating Officer Johnny Amaral said the state’s report recommending probation hit all the right points.

“Friant Water Authority is pleased that the staff report contains such an intense level of focus on subsidence and protecting the integrity of the (canal),” he said. “It should be the goal and priority of all involved.”

While local agencies were tasked with coming up with plans to protect aquifers, the state acts as a backstop evaluating those plans and then enforcing pumping reductions, if needed.

While Quinley wasn’t surprised by the recommendation for state intervention, he is hoping to keep Delano-Earlimart out of probation. A number of groundwater agencies in the Tule subbasin, as well as other subbasins, are hanging their hopes on what’s known as “the good guy clause.”

That refers to a clause in the Water Code  that states: “The board shall exclude from probationary status any portion of a basin for which a groundwater sustainability agency demonstrates compliance with the sustainability goal.”

However, Water Board staff have already recommended against excluding any groundwater agencies from probation in both the Tule and Tulare Lake subbasins stating that no agencies in either subbasin “have demonstrated compliance with the sustainability goal.”

Quinley was undaunted: “We have and will continue to work to get (Delano-Earlimart) excluded.”

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.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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