If groundwater management is the wave of the future in California, the Tulare County Supervisors want to make sure they, and local stakeholders, have a say in how it plays out.
A proposed state law that would regulate the pumping of groundwater in basins where the water table is being depleted was one of the topics at a 90-minute meeting on water issues Tuesday. The study session was held three years into a severe drought that has curtailed surface water supplies and forced many farmers in the San Joaquin Valley to resort to pumping groundwater for irrigation.
Supervisors received an education from county staff and an earful from constituents.
Denise England, a senior administrative analyst with the County’s Department of Water Resources, updated the Board on Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bill 1168. She said both bills seek to limit groundwater pumping in water basins where pumping exceeds recharge rates. Groundwater sustainability plans would be required for high-priority water basins like those in Tulare County by January, 2020.
A series of speakers urged the Board to help shape the legislation.
“I think it’s really important that we offer some solutions locally,” said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, discussing the proposed legislation and the need for input from the County.
Larry Peltzer, a fourth-generation farmer and member of the Tulare County Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, agreed. “The County probably has to do something to keep the wolves in Sacramento from getting after us.”
The House and Senate bills were merged Tuesday, and the supervisors told County staff to prepare an update on the combined bill and make a future presentation to the board. Supervisor Allen Ishida said the County needs to “weigh-in early and have an impact.” Several supervisors said it is essential that groundwater management and sustainability plans, if required, be drafted locally with input from stakeholders.
The Board appeared receptive to a regional approach to groundwater management.
“We’d like to work across county lines,” said Eric Kaeding, who represented the Kings County Water Commission at the meeting. “Groundwater doesn’t recognize county boundaries.”
The Board discussed the possibility of joint meetings of the water commissions of the two counties to begin the process. And Jean Rousseau, Tulare County’s administrative officer, told The Recorder last week that regional groundwater management will likely be a topic at the fall conference of the San Joaquin Valley Association of Counties.
Blattler urged a collaborative, proactive approach that keeps groundwater management in local hands and out of the courts. “Nobody wants to visit that dirty word — adjudication,” she said.
By discussing the issue, the Board is moving in the right direction, said Ishida, a third generation citrus farmer who represents the Lindsay area.
“This is a baby step, but an important step,” Ishida said. “We’re going to have many of these meetings in the future.”
The board also heard presentations on a pair of local proposals — an update to the county’s well-water ordinance, and a new ordinance that would regulate groundwater exports from the county.
The proposed changes to the County’s outdated well ordinance, which is designed to protect water quality by properly sealing wells, sparked little discussion. County staff will prepare a draft ordinance that will be reviewed by a pair of County advisory committees — the Ag Policy Committee and the Tulare County Water Commission — before coming back to the board.
Farmers and local irrigation district managers served as a sounding board for the supervisors on the exportation ordinance proposal. The Ag Policy Committee had asked the County to look at ways to prevent large-scale transfers of groundwater to distant areas, while still allowing irrigation and water districts to move water within the region.
Several speakers urged the Board to move cautiously to avoid outlawing or adding to the cost of beneficial water transfers with an exportation ordinance.
Dale Brogan, general manager of the Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District, said out-of-county transfers are routine because irrigation districts frequently “bank” excess water underground in other districts. “When excess water comes, it comes in big gulps, and you need a place to store it,” Brogan explained.
“Water banking is a way of life now,” Brogan said. “It requires us to move water in and out of the County all the time.”
Peltzer said he was concerned that an exportation ordinance would come with fees that raise the cost of beneficial water transfers. “My pocket just keeps getting tapped,” he said.
The ordinance will next be discussed at a joint meeting of the Ag Policy Committee and the Water Commission at 3 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 11 in Visalia.