Aqueduct in Los Angeles County California
Aqueduct in Los Angeles County California (Photo By trekandphoto / Adobe Stock)

By Patty Poire, President, Kern County Farm Bureau

Here we are in the middle of 2023; what a weather year it has been, and it is only halfway. First, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced that the State Water Project (SWP) increased water supply allocations on April 20 to 100%. The last time that occurred was in 2006. The same day, the Bureau of Reclamation (Federal) announced that the Central Valley Project (CVP) water supply allocations went to 100%. 

Today, anyone who drives around the Kern County area can’t miss the flow of the Kern River and the filled recharge projects. The last classified wet year was in 2017, and this year is going to surpass that. Now comes the fun of ensuring that every drop stays within the Kern basin and is managed so that flooding is minimal. Let us hope Mother Nature keeps the weather gradually warming instead of an overnight heat spike. The Kern basin should be grateful that the agricultural water districts have continued to prepare for years like this and have spent millions on canals and recharge projects. This type of foresight should prevent what is currently happening in Tulare County, where flooding continues to occur; not to say that those agricultural water districts didn’t prepare, but not to the extent that has happened here in Kern. For example, in 2017, there were over three-million-acre feet of water recharged/banked that helped weather the drought. This ability to manage the water will provide the Kern Basin with a little buffer if the next year should be dry. (Just a reminder, if you as a landowner are putting flood water onto your property, I recommend that you review the Governor’s Executive Order, mentioned in last month’s article.)

With all this excitement about water flowing, unfortunately, it doesn’t stop the program called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). As I mentioned a few months ago, the Kern subbasin was deemed by DWR to be “Inadequate” in the submittal of the Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP). The Kern basin has the same three deficiencies that were delivered from DWR when the Kern basin was deemed “Incomplete.” The word that sticks out the most to me about how DWR describes the GSP is “fragmented.” The definition of fragment is a part broken off or detached, or incomplete. The foundation of SGMA is a basin-wide program where it is required to reflect coordination, collaboration, and the same methodologies and data. But is the managed basin fragmented, or is it managed based on water deliveries? Who knows the basin better than the locals who have managed water here for decades? Remember that SGMA is about “local control.” The question that landowners should be asking is will the Kern Basin work together and reflect coordination, collaboration, and the same methodologies and data so that the State Water Board does not call a “probationary hearing” (public hearing) to discuss next steps on oversight of the water extractions in the Kern subbasin.

As I mentioned in April’s article, the cost to landowners/extractors is $300 to register your well and then an extraction fee of $40 per acre-foot. These fees can be increased at any time by the State Board, and most landowners/extractors have already paid for their water by their assessed fees from the water district. It would be approximately $140 million dollars. In this type of situation, coordination and collaboration would be foremost and beyond question, but when it comes to comprise, which is a foundation of both, not sure how to move the needle. SGMA does not impede or impact a water right, but that SGMA is about living within your water budget. The Kern basin is approximately 326,000-acre feet of overdraft and must be addressed by 2040. 

There are reasons why this overdraft has occurred. Since 2000 the SWP has not been a reliable source of water, where the reliability is currently at 52% as compared to prior to 2000, where the reliability was 88%. The state’s decision not to deliver SWP water has made the Kern basin critically overdrafted. If the reliability had stayed at the 88%, the Kern basin would not be in its current situation. But that should have been handled years ago with the state on reliability. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of SGMA and worked on the bill when it was going through the legislative process and was able to get some changes, like the 20-year timeline instead of the original 5-year. However, now is not the time to put landowners/extractors under the control of the state.

In saying all this, as you all know, I have a saying “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” Well, you are on the menu at this time. Engagement by you as a landowner should be foremost to assist in achieving coordination, collaboration, and forcing comprise because I know farmers as a group; they work well with each other for the greater good. And the greater good will benefit all by keeping the State in Sacramento, not in the Kern basin. I recommend that you engage and be at the table.

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