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Apr 27, 2022
Madera County, California, farmers feel the pain of groundwater rules

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is not a new topic, but it is new territory for some. In Madera County, California, the harsh consequences of this new California regulation have been reality for the last couple of years, and now the pain is starting to set in.

Madera County is groundwater-dependent. Some may argue that we have access to surface water, but for those of us in the water world, we know that surface-water deliveries are not nearly as reliable as they were many years ago. As surface-water supplies vanish in drought years, as in the last two, what we have left to irrigate our crops comes from the aquifer.

Last summer, the Madera County Board of Supervisors adopted an allocation for acreage under the County Groundwater Sustainability Agency within Madera, Chowchilla and Delta-Mendota subbasins, much of which has no access to surface water.

Under the Madera County GSA, the county is responsible for over 200,000 acres, roughly half of the entire subbasin acreage in the county. The allocation ranges from 6 inches to 12-ish inches of evapotranspiration of sustainable yield, depending on how many acres opt into the allocation pool—or who is willing to pay to irrigate.

Growers who opt in for an allocation are now paying $23 per acre for administration costs. However, this doesn’t include the cost of the water they get to pump.

Several months after the allocation and administrative costs were adopted, the county started a rate study for a local election to impose a new “property tax.

This rate study determines how much the GSA is going to have to charge for pumping groundwater. After much back and forth, the study was authorized last week. As a result, guess what farmers and ranchers will be paying? It will be an additional $138 to $246 per acre, depending on what subbasin they fall into.

The largest portion of the irrigated acreage is in the Madera subbasin. When combining administrative and water fees for farmers there, what do they get for their $269 an acre? The answer is about 27-28 inches of water based on ET until the year 2025. That price tag doesn’t include any additional penalties for overpumping.

The penalty number hasn’t yet been set, but—at a minimum—it will cost $500 per acre-foot of water pumped, with an estimated maximum of about $1,200 per acre-foot. But that’s going to require another election to get voter approval for anything over $500.

Madera County is permanent-crop heavy, with almonds being No. 1 crop, followed by grapes and pistachios. Cattle ranching and pollination, which relies heavily on almonds, are also in the top five local agricultural sectors.

What we face now is a huge math problem. When subtracted from current market prices, our farmers’ and ranchers’ costs of water and other crop necessities don’t pencil out. What happens next? That’s yet to be seen, but our options are limited.

The Madera County GSA lacks the infrastructure needed to move surface water, if we can even obtain it in the first place.

There are plans to implement groundwater recharge projects that will rely heavily on flood flows down the San Joaquin River. However, those too are unreliable as multiple agencies are also seeking surface-water supplies from the same source, and the San Joaquin River Restoration Program requires flows for fish.

At the end of the day, our only real solution to addressing SGMA requirements is by reducing our water demand.

But what does that mean for our farmers? It means we start turning the pumps off and farming less-irrigated land. For Madera County, that could mean a 30% reduction in local tax revenues, with roughly half of the irrigated acreage having to be fallowed and repurposed.

Madera County is not the first to face this harsh reality and won’t be the last. Statewide, if something doesn’t change, agriculture will be significantly reduced. What will happen to this land that we’ve worked so hard to protect and maintain in a sustainable manner? That has yet to be seen.

We hope the stories of our farmers and ranchers in Madera County will carry weight with the political powers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. At this point, we must hope, fight and pray that common sense will prevail, sparing not only Madera County agriculture but California agriculture of irreparable harm.

Christina Beckstead is executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. Column courtesy of the California Farm Bureau Federation




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