County government is considering pulling out of a coalition of local water agencies after failing to secure blanket immunity from lawsuits that could arise from efforts to rein in local groundwater pumping.
The proposal follows a written assurance by state water officials that the county's withdrawal from the Kern Groundwater Authority will not, by itself, jeopardize local control of groundwater use across much of the area. Some local water agencies had worried it would.
If approved Tuesday afternoon by Kern's Board of Supervisors, the move would amount to a formal retreat from the county's previous efforts to take a leading role in helping local landowners — ranchers, oil producers and farmers in areas not represented by an existing water district — comply with state rules intended to make groundwater use sustainable over the long term.
It remains unclear how the county's withdrawal would affect the Kern County Water Agency, which state officials see as the backup organization capable of taking on responsibilities that previously belonged to the county. The agency declined to comment on the matter.
NO BUSINESS IN WATER
County Administrator Ryan J. Alsop said Kern government had no business managing the use of local groundwater, though he added it will continue to lend a hand through land-use planning and permitting.
The proposed withdrawal, he said, is intended to protect taxpayers and the county's general fund from years of litigation he deems likely to result when landowners are told they can no longer pump unlimited groundwater at no charge.
"The county has been told throughout history to stay out of the water business," he said. "Suddenly we are in this unprecedented position where we are in the water business, and we shouldn't be."
The Kern Groundwater Authority's chairman, lawyer Dennis Mullins, questioned Alsop's assessment that lawsuits are inevitable. He said the coalition offered to protect the county from potential lawsuits by farmers and that the landowners the county fears will sue — ranchers grazing herds on oil property — use so little groundwater that they won't have much, if any, new regulation to complain about.
While KGA offered to take over most of the county's groundwater management role, he said the group resisted offering blanket immunity in case the county chose to do something provocative and unwarranted.
Mullins added that he was surprised to learn last week the county wanted out of the coalition because KGA had been awaiting a response from the county in groundwater management negotiations.
"If they couldn't control the game, they took their ball and went home," he said.
A COMPLEX SITUATION
The conflict highlights complexities surrounding implementation of the State Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, a legislative effort signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 aimed at making California groundwater pumping sustainable.
By Jan. 31, 2020, local water agencies are required to send the state detailed plans on how they will monitor and regulate groundwater use in a sustainable fashion. That deadline applies even to landowners not part of an existing water agency, which raises concerns because they have a lot of expensive and detailed work to perform within about a year.
The county had proposed to represent those non-represented areas, which account for about 400,000 acres mostly on Kern's periphery, with a basic monitoring plan. But Kern officials changed course with an Aug. 24 letter urging landowners to join existing water districts or form their own.
State water officials say similar conflicts have cropped up around the state. What makes Kern's dilemma unique, they say, is the county's size — no other sub-basin in California is as large — and no other counties have such a complex network of local water agencies.
In a Dec. 3 letter to Kern government's top lawyer, the groundwater management chief at the State Water Resources Control Board, Sam Boland-Brien, urged the county to stay actively involved in the area's groundwater management. But he also confirmed that the county's withdrawal from the Kern Groundwater Authority would not trigger the state's intervention.
Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, which is a member of KGA along with more than a dozen other local water districts, expressed concern that a withdrawal by the county would create a vacuum that could leave some parts of the local sub-basin unrepresented with regard to SGMA.
Some water districts have successfully incorporated previously unrepresented areas, he said, but others remain without representation and time is running out.
Averett said he wasn't sure how likely it is that landowners not part of a water district would sue if they suddenly faced groundwater regulations. But he said such risk is not borne by the county alone.
"It's a difficult position for both sides," he said, referring to the conflict between the county and the KGA. "I understand the county and their indemnification issue. But we all face the exact same threat."