Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Judge reverses direction, farmers will see water rules sooner

A Sacramento Superior Court judge reversed direction on an agriculture lawsuit challenging new farm groundwater rules, meaning thousands of farmers probably will see the rules and expenses this year.

In case you haven’t been following it, this is the end of the historic waiver for agriculture from these kinds of water rules.

Sacramento Judge Timothy Frawley hinted in a tentative decision earlier this year that he might delay the rules and require a rewrite of the environmental studies.

Late last week, he said the studies are acceptable.

That affects growers in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties where farm production amounts to $15 billion annually. The rules will cost farmers about $1.90 per acre, the state estimates, but farm-water leaders figure it’s a range from $3 to $10 per acre.

We’re talking about 850,000 acres of land, so the total costs could range from $1.6 million (the state’s estimate) to more than $8 million (farm-water leaders’ estimate).

“We are gearing up in anticipation that the (rules) will be adopted and implementation will begin in the fall, but that too is very fluid,” said Dave Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District and coordinator of a coalition representing farmers in the region.

The judge also upheld a challenge by the fishing and environmental water advocacy groups. But the rules will not be set aside while the state addresses the technical issue concerning the transition to the new rules.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has been working on these rules for years. Farmers have been dreading them. Environmentalists have been getting impatient waiting for them.

Underground water contamination is widespread in this region with nitrates from fertilizers, septic systems, sewage treatment and decomposing vegetation. Drinking water is threatened for 250,000 people, mostly in small towns.

Environmental and fishing groups wanted more from the new rules, but most of their claims were rejected. The court agreed with one contention: State law was not followed in granting an extension of a temporary ag waiver several years ago.

California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a group involved in the legal action, said the regional board needs to penalize offenders and reward those who follow the rules.

Bill Jennings, executive director of Stockton-based Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said: “We work with farmers, understand their concerns and likely could amicably resolve our issues except for the water board’s costly, unwieldy and ineffective bureaucratic octopus.”

Snow surveys in Kings River area confirm small snowpack

The Kings River Water Association on Thursday said the snowpack is half or less than what it would normally be in higher elevations above Pine Flat Reservoir.

Two lower elevation courses had little or no snow, the association reported. Association leaders say this could turn out to be one of the driest years on record at the Kings River.

Kings River Watermaster Steve Haugen said the result was not a surprise. There has been little storm activity since December. Now farmers involved with the 1 million-acre association face a second dry year in a row.

“Our member units and their water users are going to have below-average water supplies again this year,” he said.

More groundwater pumping is expected this summer, Haugen said.

If the dry spell continues, the river runoff is expected to be as low as 32% of average, or about 400,000 acre-feet of water.

Activists challenge new ag groundwater order

The tug of war over California’s groundwater continues over a 1 million-acre swath of the San Joaquin Valley, north of the Fresno area.

For the last decade, the state has studied and discussed ways to protect groundwater beneath farm fields. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board late last year issued hard-fought orders for several thousand farmers north of the San Joaquin River.

Activists in early January told the state the orders don’t do the job, and they need to be rewritten.

Activists say farm chemicals and pollution would continue to pollute the water, monitoring would be inadequate and people in small towns would have to continue living with poor drinking water quality.

They asked that authorities stop the new orders for the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition in Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties.

The petitioners are community groups, including Asociacion de Gente por El Agua (AGUA), Fairmead Community and Friends, and Planada en Accion.

These challenges take time. The state will have nine months to respond.

If the challenge is denied, the next stop is probably Superior Court in Sacramento. The lawyers who filed the petition with the state are Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center and Phoebe Seaton of California Rural Legal Assistance.

The petition notes that it has been 13 years since legislation was passed requiring farm groundwater regulation. The disputes over the program may take a few more years to resolve.

This is the first large coalition in the Valley to come under the groundwater program.