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

Sandbags are stacked around a well in anticipation of flooding of the Kings River in the Island District of Lemoore, Calif., April 19, 2023.
Jae C. Hong
Sandbags are stacked around a well in anticipation of flooding of the Kings River in the Island District of Lemoore, Calif., April 19, 2023.

California might step in to regulate groundwater use in part of the crop-rich San Joaquin Valley, which would be a first-of-its-kind move that comes a decade after lawmakers tasked local communities with carefully managing the precious but often overused resource.

At issue is control over a farming-dependent area where state officials say local water agencies haven’t come up with a strong enough plan to keep the water flowing sustainably into the future. The State Water Resources Control Board will hold a hearing Tuesday to decide whether to place the region under monitoring, which would mean state, not local, officials would temporarily watch over and limit how much water could be pumped from the ground.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Dusty Ference, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau, which represents regional farmers. “What you gain in having local control is the ability to build groundwater recharge projects and some flexibility with how water is used and moved and traded or not.”


Ference said the state board wouldn’t have the local expertise or staff to do this.

“It will just be, ‘Here’s the pumping amount we authorize. Do with it what you can.’”

The hearing is seen as a test of how California’s groundwater rules are working 10 years after lawmakers passed them. The limits came after years of overpumping and drought led to a host of problems ranging from residential wells running dry to sinking land. The goal was to make the most critically overdrafted groundwater basins sustainable.

Communities have since formed groundwater sustainability agencies and drafted management plans. In the Tulare Lake Subbasin, five local agencies worked on a single 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.

If the state water board steps in after Tuesday’s hearing, officials could require anyone who extracts more than a minimal amount of groundwater to report how much they take and pay fees for it. The state could also require larger pumpers to install and use meters that measure water use.


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. “I would like to go to that meeting and beg for mercy and ask for them to let us come back to the table.”

One of the agencies, the Mid-Kings River Groundwater Sustainability Agency, proposed an April 23 vote on charging landowners fees and limiting pumping. The move has met with some resistance, and agency director Dennis Mills recently told residents something must be done if they want to try to keep the state from stepping in.

“They will not accept more promises at this point,” Mills said. “Just a revised plan is not good enough. They need to see concrete steps as to how we’re addressing these things.”

Then there are people like Joaquin Contente, a longtime dairy farmer in Kings County, who said pumping fees and caps 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.

Ference, the farm bureau director, said he supports local control so that farmers can have a say in what happens and communities can invest in local recharge projects.

“This is a community, countywide issue that, if it’s not managed properly, will be catastrophic,” he said.