Kings Co. farmers, Farm Bureau sue state over groundwater probation

Landowners in the Tulare Lake Subbasin are staring down tens of millions of dollars in new fees to the state.

Local farmers and the Kings County Farm Bureau are suing the State of California for putting the Tulare Lake Subbasin on probation for its groundwater management. 

Per the lawsuit, the Kings County Farm Bureau argues that the State Water Resources Control Board committed government overreach by designating the subbasin as probationary. 


The backstory: In 2020, the five groundwater sustainability agencies in the Tulare Lake Subbasin submitted their initial groundwater sustainability plan to the State Department of Water Resources. 

  • But the state determined the plan was incomplete, leading to the agencies to resubmit a revised plan in 2022. 
  • The state determined the revised plan to be inadequate and took certain action which led to a probationary hearing. 
  • Last month the State Water Board officially designated the Tulare Lake Subbasin as probationary, imposing a $20 per acre-foot extraction fee for groundwater that is pumped in the basin. 

Why it matters: In 2014 the then Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) into law, governing how agencies in critically overdrafted areas achieve groundwater sustainability. 

  • SGMA requires groundwater sustainability agencies to develop and implement plans to mitigate groundwater overdraft within 20 years. 

The big picture: The Kings County Farm Bureau argues in the lawsuit that the probationary designation effectively disposes of all local management efforts to date and begins a state-mandated management process from scratch. 

  • That process will be expensive, duplicative and punitive, with landowners paying for multiple management structures, according to the lawsuit. 
  • “The State Water Board’s takeover of the Tulare Lake Subbasin is not just the next phase of groundwater management, but rather a foundational and devastating shift from local groundwater management to state control over every well owner in the subbasin,” the lawsuit reads. 
  • The Kings County Farm Bureau also said landowners in the subbasin did not receive notice about the probationary designation and have not been provided with any information relating to the new fees or penalties. 

Go deeper: The lawsuit further claims that the State Water Board exceeded its jurisdiction with the probationary designation. 

  • The designation was also “arbitrary, capricious and not supported by evidence,” with farmers alleging the designation was premised on a series of unlawful underground regulations.  

What they’re saying: Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference said no other sector in Kings County comes remotely close to providing as much as agriculture does.

  • “When ag suffers in Kings County, the entire community suffers,” Ference said. “Placing the TLSB on probation in 2024 is inconceivable and unjust. SGMA dictates that subbasins have until 2040 to achieve sustainability, and the SWRCB has arbitrarily accelerated that deadline to 2024.”
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