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County Corner: Our answers on groundwater leave more questions

Issue Date: May 25, 2022
By Breanne Vandenberg
Breanne Vandenberg, Merced County Farm Bureau Executive Director

In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order outlining the temporary strategies for California to manage the ongoing drought. Within this order, he outlined rules for counties, cities and other public agencies as it relates to new wells or alterations to an existing well.

One rule requires farmers and ranchers to get written verification from their local groundwater sustainability agency that the new well or alterations "would not be inconsistent with any sustainable groundwater management program" for the area. The rule says any new well must be unlikely "to interfere with the production and functioning of existing nearby wells" or "cause subsidence that would adversely impact or damage nearby infrastructure."

Farm Bureau members also must be reminded of Assembly Bill 2201, by Assemblymember Steve Bennett, D-Ventura. This is similar to Newsom's executive order. But while the governor's order is temporary, AB 2201 would be permanent. The bill was passed by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and now moves to the Appropriations Committee.

While this has been an alarming notice to many, Merced County began this discussion in 2021. Here is a brief history: In 2015, Merced County adopted a Groundwater Mining and Export Ordinance. This was in relation to concerns of groundwater being moved from one subbasin to another and on the heels of the adoption of SGMA in 2014.

The local ordinance does not allow for new wells to be placed within a quarter mile of another operating well. In addition, a new well would have difficulty being placed on a property that has not previously been irrigated in the matter now intended for the property.

For instance, if one of our farmers wanted to place a well on native pasture and intended to plant almond trees, they would have to go through the California Environmental Quality Act to be granted approval, if they are even given that.

Difficulty would also arise as to the proposed depth of the well. The Corcoran Clay layer throughout Merced County varies depending on the location and can even differ within fields. Should farmers want to drill deeper than the Corcoran Clay, they would have to go through CEQA to determine impacts of such action. However, if this is a replacement well for one already below the clay, then the applicant would most likely be granted approval for a similar well.

Merced County has four subbasins, with three—Delta-Mendota, Chowchilla and Merced—being in the high-priority category. The fourth, Turlock Subbasin, is considered medium priority and had to submit its plan in early 2022. Our high-priority basins are currently reworking portions of groundwater sustainability plans. That is because the state found fault with them in one area or another.

The county is involved with each of our subbasins, as a member and not the full operating entity. However, the county would be left with full liability should a well not comply with a GSP and the 2015 well ordinance remain. As of May 1, the county has moved the process to the GSAs.

How does the county envision this working? If a well is within a groundwater sustainability agency, it would have a specific process for proceeding. The steps are these: The GSA reviews the well proposal and then provides a consistency determination. The applicant then files a well permit with the county. The county reviews the construction standards, and its Department of Environmental Health inspects the well. The GSA would then regulate the well through the sustainability plan implementation.

Farmers outside of a GSA would be subject to the original ordinance and move through the county for approval or denial of the permit.

From talking with our various agencies and members, opinions vary depending on whom you speak with. Some view moving well oversight to the GSAs as a step in the right direction. Others view it is as a more troublesome step.

Questions arise as over whether more fees could be involved. And, if someone farms in multiple GSAs, how different will requirements be from the various governing boards?

Some GSAs have developed guidelines for this process. Some are still discussing what those would look like. Others would prefer to work only according to the governor's executive order.

Meanwhile, many groundwater agencies are still reworking their sustainability plans to comply with issues found in reviews by the state.

For our farmers, many questions remain. Our growers are still learning about these changes, which frustrate and delay their requested actions as they strive to sustain agriculture in Merced County.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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