Photo by Cristian Palmer on unsplash.org

published on August 3, 2022 - 2:14 PM
Written by Edward Smith

A proposed fee system to manage irrigated land in Madera County has sparked a successful protest, leaving one groundwater agency unfunded and at least one farmer claiming the process was done with minimal notice.

Officials with Madera County added fees to irrigated acreage commonly referred to as white areas — having no surface water access and not belonging to an irrigation district.

Three newly formed groundwater sustainable agencies — Chowchilla Subbasin, the Madera Subbasin and the Delta Mendota Subbasin — are left with no funding for four ongoing groundwater projects required under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It’s the County of Madera that oversees the land, said Stephanie Anagnason, director of water and natural resources for Madera County.


Balancing the books

Irrigated land must operate under a groundwater sustainability agency and have a groundwater sustainability plan to ensure — among other things — that the amount of water extracted from aquifers does not exceed the amount of water put back in.

To comply with its plan, four projects were identified — creating recharge basins, retiring land, repairing domestic wells and paying for participation in the upcoming Sites Reservoir.

To do this, officials created an annual fee structure charging owners of irrigated land —  $246 an acre in Madera, $203 in Chowchilla and $138 in Delta Mendota.

Under Proposition 218 — passed in 1996 — voters have a chance to overturn such fees. After the fee is approved, those affected by it must generate a majority to “protest” the fee, thereby ending it. These kinds of votes are commonplace for utilities, said Anagnason.

Of the 945 parcels in Madera, 442 cast votes in protest. Of the 12 parcels in Delta Mendota, two cast votes in protest. The fees will remain in those agencies.

In Chowchilla, 171 protests were cast out of 264 — successfully rejecting the fees placed on the land, according to information provided by Anagnason from the Madera County Clerk’s office.


Not junk mail

Farmer Ralph Pistoresi said when he received the letter from the County stating he would be subject to these new fees, he disregarded it as junk mail. It was his 91-year-old mother who noticed the letter and told him it could be important.

He felt it was another example of government overreach.

The $246-per-acre fee comes at a time when farmers are hit hard by rising labor costs, virtually no surface water allocations and new restrictions on groundwater pumping.

What’s more, the cash crop so many farmers rely on to counter rising overhead — almonds — has collapsed in price because of export bottlenecks. The nut that at one time sold for as much as $4 a pound is now trading below $2 a pound.

For a farmer with 100 acres, the new fee means an additional $24,600 annual expense.

After seeing the mailer, Pistoresi began sending his own mailers to fellow landowners encouraging a protest vote. He sent out 580 letters to get the word out to vote “no” before the deadline. He received 445 back saying they would vote “no.” Thirty-two came back because the address was wrong.


Above and beyond

Anagnason said the County went above and beyond what was required in letting people know about the vote. California law mandates a fee increase like the one in Madera County be done using rules under Prop 218.

The mailer went out May 2, alerting people the final day to lodge a protest vote was June 21. Without a protest, they would be automatically opted in to pay the fees.

They put an urgent sticker on the letter as well, Anagnason said.

A tri-fold brochure was created letting people know about the rate increase. Public hearings were also held.

As for the mailer not containing a ballot — Anagnason said it’s technically not a vote. A scrap of paper with an Assessor’s Parcel Number indicating a “no” would suffice for a protest vote.

Whether because of Pistoresi’s efforts or not, protests from landowners were enough to reject the fees in the Chowchilla Subbasin. This means projects outlined in the groundwater sustainability plans would go unfunded.

Part of the money would go toward funding the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County in Sacramento. The underground reservoir has made advancements in recent weeks despite facing a deluge of lawsuits.


Investment in water

Buying into the Sites Reservoir is essentially buying an asset, said Anagnason. Water users in the white areas are — for the most part — completely reliant on groundwater. So even though the reservoir project is far north of Madera County, those assets can be exchanged for other water supplies. The rate study accounted for 10,000 acre-feet of water total from Sites Reservoir — an amount Pistoresi says is meager. There is already a waiting list to participate in the project, Anagnason said.

The plan also funds residential well repair. Without the fees, Anagnason said the well repair would still get funding through pumping fees. But relying on pumping fees is not certain and could fluctuate year-to-year.

Pistoresi said the fees he is paying for well mitigation would not translate back to parcel owners as a positive.

“They are creating a public service that we are providing,” Pistoresi said, likening it to eminent domain without receiving compensation.

Recharge projects and land repurposing efforts are also covered by the plan’s funding.

Anagnason said the 11 other irrigation districts in Madera County are ahead in terms of project rollout because they existed before SGMA. Farmers in those districts pay fees to belong to those districts.

“The big difference is this is the land that had no fee structure and was entirely groundwater dependent,” Anagnason said.


Apples and oranges?

Across the San Joaquin River, the McMullin Area Groundwater Sustainability Agency is the only water agency comprised 100% of white area land, said Matt Hurley, general manager of the organization. They were one of the first to organize, funded using Prop 218 as well. Landowners agreed to charges of $19 an acre on the 120,000 acres under their jurisdiction.

Part of their funding needed to go toward creating conveyance. Even though McMullin borders large swaths of Madera County, needs vary greatly.

McMullin sits in what Hurley calls the “deep end of the pool.” A 1.8-million-acre-foot basin below them can store a bounty of water they plan to leverage to help them reach sustainability — a hydrological profile Madera County doesn’t share.

Hurley said growers in his district will be able to withdraw 1.5 acre feet of water. Growers in Madera County are limited to a third of that — six inches of water, Pistoresi said.

For Pistoresi, a perpetual debt depresses the value of his land — a prospect he said he faces since the protest didn’t kill the fee for his land. Farmers often must leverage their land to cover expenses for the season. And increased interest rates to borrow money compounds those costs.  

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