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Crop-rich California region will fall under state monitoring to preserve groundwater flow

California officials voted Tuesday to step in to monitor groundwater use in part of the crop-rich San Joaquin Valley in a first-of-its-kind move that comes a decade after local communities were tasked with managing the precious but strained resource.

The State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously to start overseeing groundwater pumping in the Tulare Lake Subbasin meaning state, not local officials, will temporarily watch how much water can be pumped from the ground.

It’s the first area in California to go through this process under the state’s landmark groundwater law that aims to keep water flowing sustainably after years of drought and overpumping has led to problems with groundwater quality and the sinking of land. California’s law tasked local communities with forming agencies and drafting groundwater management plans to reach a sustainable use of the resource for years to come.

Groundwater accounts for nearly 40% of California’s water supply in an average year and even more in dry years, according to the state board.

The move, which came after an all-day hearing in Sacramento, was met with criticism from Kings County farmers and support from water rights advocates who said they want to protect the future of drinking water for poor, rural communities. Many farmers said the state should do more to channel rivers into water storage facilities to replenish groundwater basins rather than cutting back.

“Farmers understand if these plans move forward it will force them many of them out of business,” Lynne McBride, executive director of the California Dairy Campaign, told the state board. “The ripple effects of these potential fees, fines and regulations will be vast and potentially irreversible.”

Farmers are by far the largest pumpers of groundwater in the region, but small towns and rural residents also rely on the subbasin for drinking water in their homes. Mac Glackin of the environmental group Clean Water Action said the move to put the subbasin on so-called probationary status is warranted.

“Taking this step holds us accountable to the human right to water, climate justice and racial equity,” Glackin said.

Within 90 days, anyone who pumps groundwater in the region must record the amount they remove, report it to the state board and pay fees. If a more sustainable plan isn’t developed within a year, the board could hold another public hearing and impose restrictions on pumping and fine those who take more than they are allocated, the board said in a statement after the vote.

“Groundwater supplies in the Tulare Lake basin are clearly at risk, and we are acting today to protect this resource because communities rely on it for basic needs, in particular drinking water,” Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board, said in a statement.

Five local agencies in the region worked on a single groundwater management proposal, only to see it rejected last year by the state Department of Water Resources over concerns about lowering groundwater levels, sinking land and degrading groundwater quality.

The Tulare Lake Subbasin covers a stretch of Kings County, which is home to about 150,000 people halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The county is a major producer of milk, pistachios, cotton and processed tomatoes, according to a county agricultural report.

It’s also home to Tulare Lake, a large, dry basin that fills with water in rainy years. The lake most recently reappeared in 2023 after intense winter downpours that flooded farms and roads.

Doug Freitas, an almond grower who owns property in areas governed by three different groundwater agencies, said each agency has been talking about what to do next. He said he knew about the state’s groundwater law, but like most small farmers, he was so busy trying to make ends meet that he couldn’t foresee the impact.

“As a farmer, my opinion is we need more time,” Freitas said before the hearing.

Joaquin Contente, a longtime dairy farmer in Kings County, said pumping fees and caps will spell trouble for him, whether they are imposed by local or state officials. He relies on groundwater to grow the alfalfa he feeds his 800 cattle.

“I know there’s a lot of people losing sleep over it, because I am one of them,” Contente said.

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