FresCo tries to rein in groundwater implementation, with protest

In a fight over state groundwater mandates, two Fresno Co. irrigation districts try to find a proper straw man.


Phil Desatoff on Tuesday told Buddy Mendes to drop dead.


Mendes just smiled, as befits someone who’s all but guaranteed to win.

Actually, Desatoff, manager of the Consolidated Irrigation Distrct, wasn’t speaking to Mendes personally. Desatoff was addressing the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

But Mendes, as board chairman, sits in the middle of the dais at the Hall of Records. It was only natural for Desatoff, standing at the public microphone, to look straight at Mendes while venting his spleen.

“You’re putting the entire basin in conflict because you want to insert yourself into our process,” Desatoff said.

“What the county brings is politics,” Desatoff said.

“Right now we don’t need your help,” Desatoff said.

“Don’t force your way in. When you do, you’ve created a conflict that wasn’t there,” Desatoff said.

Like I said – Mendes just smiled. The board is playing the long game.

The issue was the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, signed into law by Gov. Brown in September 2014. The initials are SGMA. The insiders pronounce it “SIGMA,” as if it were a proper noun.

SGMA is going to be a steady producer of news stories for the next five years. The law’s title says it all. SGMA’s implementation is sure to change how all of us in the San Joaquin Valley consume water, regardless of annual rainfall totals.

For now, let’s just focus briefly on the Buddy Mendes-Phil Desatoff faceoff.

One of the items on the supes’ agenda on Tuesday was a request from Alan Weaver, director of Public Works and Planning.

Weaver wanted some advice from his elected superiors: What should county staff do about the Consolidated and James irrigation districts?

Consolidated is in the southern part of Fresno County. James is a small district in the western part of the county.

This is the staff’s dilemma.

SGMA has a lot of moving pieces. One is a requirement that “groundwater sustainability agencies” be created to craft rules for the management of local groundwater.

SGMA mandates GSAs.

Who gets to be in these GSAs? What are their boundaries? What are their responsibilities?

We don’t have enough time to answer those questions. Like I said, we’re looking at a half-decade of stories to sort everything out.

But it’s enough for now to say that local irrigation districts are the essential GSA building blocks. The districts have distinct borders. They have access to surface water, which is key to managing the aquifer. They have lots of water experts. And they have within their borders lots of potential partners when it comes to GSA governance – incorporated cities.

For example, Fresno Irrigation District will be the fundamental footprint for a GSA. The city of Fresno will be part of that GSA, and will have a seat at the governing table.

As you probably sense, getting these GSAs up and running is no easy task. Each GSA could have five or more members, each constituting a sovereign government entity.

These sovereign government entities – they’re rather turf conscious.

But if you want a really tough job mandated by SGMA, just wait until these local GSAs have come up with a final plan to wisely management the groundwater within their respective borders.

That’s when SGMA will require all of the local GSAs to sit together at a table. Each GSA will unveil its groundwater management plan. If all the plans aren’t compatible with each other, well, it’s pretty much back to the drawing board.


How did all this cause Desatoff to go ballistic on Tuesday?

Well, it turns out that the county by some SGMA standards doesn’t have the necessary clout to be a voting member on a GSA. For instance, the county doesn’t have rights to river water the way the city of Fresno does.

But the county does have “land-use authority” in unincorporated areas. Most of the county’s 6,000 square miles is unincorporated. And this land-use authority, according to SGMA, can give the county a seat at the table of a GSA.

When all is said and done, according to a report from Weaver, Fresno County might end up with eight or 10 GSAs.

Now, keeping in mind that these GSAs are still in various stages of formation, Weaver told the supes that all but two of the county’s GSAs are happy to have the County of Fresno come on board as a full-fledged member of the governing structure.

The two holdouts: The GSA’s dominated by the Consolidated and James irrigation districts.

Because the county government is involved in such a big area, Weaver said, the county should be involved in each GSA.

Weaver didn’t come right out and say somebody’s got to herd all these cats, but that seemed to be his message.

We’ve already heard what Desatoff thinks of the county. An official from the James Irrigation District was also at Tuesday’s meeting. I didn’t catch his name, but his sentiments were similar to Desatoff’s.

Chairman Mendes didn’t get angry. He said the county is here to help.

If state lawmakers did anything right with SGMA, Mendes said, “they left it to local control.”

Near as I could tell from the audience, that’s where things ended – Desatoff acting like he was fighting King George III, Mendes biding his time.

But the truth of the matter is that SGMA doesn’t leave things to local control, and everyone involved with groundwater management knows it. The law is clear – if the local guys and gals in all these GSAs can’t come up with a sustainable regional groundwater management plan that satisfies Sacramento, then the 21st century version of George III (his name is Jerry Brown) will come down here and impose conformity.

This harsh truth was the backdrop for Thursday’s meeting of the local Sustainable Groundwater Management Act’s Working Group.

About 15 officials from cities, government agencies and irrigation districts met in the County Plaza’s Ballroom in downtown. The audience had about 25 people in it.

Mendes and Supervisor Brian Pacheco are co-chairman. They said the county is here to help.

Desatoff was there as a group member. This time he was as cool as the Sierra snowpack.

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