Concerns are rising Kern might lose local control over groundwater pumping — an activity vital to farmers, ranchers, oil producers and others — after county officials moved to scale back their own oversight role.

The county informed property owners Aug. 24 it does not have the expertise or the money to actively manage groundwater use in portions of Kern where no other management authority exists. It encouraged them to join a local water district or form their own management organization, either of which would be expected to come up with a plan for making the practice sustainable.

State law suggests that if any part of a local basin is without direct oversight or cannot come up with a detailed groundwater management plan, then the entire area — the valley portion of Kern County, in this case — is subject to intervention by officials in Sacramento. That could mean unilateral imposition of fees and possibly pumping restrictions.

Some have expressed hope any state intervention would be limited to areas that have not joined or formed a groundwater management organization. Representatives of the State Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board, both of which have groundwater authority, said they were unable to provide clarity on that point Friday.

The prevailing uncertainty has stoked worries Sacramento would declare the entire county out of compliance, throwing into question all local groundwater planning, including millions of dollars of work by area water districts.

"We're waiting to see how this really plays out and will it really bring the state in on some lands or all lands," said David Ansolabehere, general manager of the local Cawelo Water District. "We just don't know yet."

WHO WILL PROVIDE OVERSIGHT?

The situation arises from opposition by ranchers and other property owners  not part of a local water district to the idea of paying assessments necessary to cover the cost of a groundwater management plan.

County government is, by default, the organization tasked with managing areas that are not part of a local district or groundwater management organization.

Chief Deputy County Administrative Officer Alan Christensen said the county remains prepared to provide some level of management, including creation of a relatively basic management plan reflective of what he called passive land uses such as ranching. But the oversight role would be considerably less ambitious than what the county had envisioned.

For example, he said, the county might rely on satellite imagery to monitor groundwater use instead of actively monitoring groundwater levels using readings from a well.

"We're trying to find a way to do this so it works for everyone," he said. "We can still cover (properties not part of a water district). We're just not ramping to be a water district … because we don't have that expertise."

ANOTHER OPTION

An alternative he and others mentioned is for another local organization, the Kern Groundwater Authority, to assume leadership. But it was unclear Friday how far leaders of the group were willing to go in creating a rigorous management plan, and ongoing oversight role, that would be acceptable to state regulators.

Three senior KGA officials were unavailable for interviews Friday. The group's planning manager, Patricia Poire, said in a brief email the group "is working and will continue to work with the county toward SGMA compliance," referring to the State Groundwater Management Act, which sets a number of deadlines for creating plans to ensure property owners do not overuse groundwater.

SGMA has stirred considerable concern locally, partly because of the threat that the state will impose steep fees for use of groundwater, or otherwise restrict pumping. The act is intended to reverse the overuse of groundwater, which partly because of the drought has contributed to land subsidence and raised questions about future water supplies.

A key concept in SGMA is that groundwater is best managed locally. If the state does intervene, it would be expected to come up with a management plan then back away, leaving local officials in charge of carrying out regulatory measures.

TAKING INITIATIVE

Some 300,000 acres across Kern County are believed to be without a groundwater management organization other than the county. The figure had been much higher — as much as 450,000 acres — but some property owners have joined neighboring water districts or formed their own groundwater management groups.

One property owner who has opted to help form a local groundwater authority is Bakersfield-area oilman Chad Hathaway. Skeptical that the county was ever going to be able to oversee groundwater use, he helped form a group that now covers 35,000 acres of private property.

The problem is, property owners representing another 120,000 acres have not come to the table, and he remains concerned the state will try to step in.

"Are you going to take a bunch, a lot of people that have done the right thing and throw them out of compliance, when there are specific areas that are not?" he asked. "Technically, (state regulators) can."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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