On Saturday, February 18, 2023 there was a different kind of SGMA related meeting held in Madera. Many of you may be aware a 218 Election in Madera County was temporarily blocked by a lawsuit under appeal from an organization now known as the California United Water Coalition. This leaves part of the white areas in the Madera and Delta Mendota Subbasins without funding for projects to provide coverage from a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. And there is now no funding in the Chowchilla Subbasin.
For some background a 218 Election gets its name from Prop 218. Passed by the voters of California, Prop 218 limits the ability of special districts to raise assessments without a vote by those paying the assessments. It’s a common practice amongst water and irrigation districts and for all I know Fire and Cemetery districts as well. In fact, Fresno Irrigation District is planning a 218 Election this year.
Maybe 15-20 years ago near Lodi there was a small district that had access to 30,000 a/f from the Mokelumne River most years, but they were on a use it or lose it timeline. Their only problem was they needed funds to build the turnout to take that water into the district’s system. So they put it to a 218 vote and it passed. A group of landowners in the district sued. They were led by a mortgage refugee from Berkeley who had a five-acre parcel. He stated it was unfair because he’d have to pay more but the increase didn’t pay for a turnout to his property. The lawsuit cost the district $500,000 and wiped out its cash reserve so the turnout was never built. There were some very upset people and their meetings were one of the few I’ve attended where armed guards were hired to help maintain order.
CUWC sponsored an all-day event at Papagni Winery near Highway 99 and Avenue 9. I arrived a little late and counted 35-folks in attendance. There was lots of food and tables set up for about 60 or so seats. In attendance were Assemblyman Jim Patterson, congressional candidate Michael Maher and Darcy Burke from Watermark Public Relations, a firm that recently guided Consolidated Irrigation District in Selma through a successful 218 Election.
Most of the people either left or went on a bus tour of a Madera farm. That gave me a chance to speak with Mark Nakata. Nakata is listed on their website as the President of CUWC. He told me he is in the ag fertilizer business in Madera County.
I asked Nakata some questions about CUWC. Like, is it a non-profit? The organization is soliciting funds and only Nakata is listed on its website. He told me it is a 501c-6 which is a common designation for chambers of commerce and professional associations. Contributions are not tax-deductible for an individual’s tax return, only as a business expense. As of the day of the event CUWC had not yet received its 501c status. The law firm of Wild Tipton & Carter is working on it and also representing CUWC in its lawsuit against Madera County over the 218 Election.
While not listed on the website Nakata told me the organization was started by Madera farmer Ralph Pistoresi who is Chair. Also, on the CUWC board are Bob Bischel, Sohan Samran, Ryan Jones and Micky Basra.
Nakata said as the organization continues to grow and learn they’ve realized their fight isn’t really with the county, it’s with the State. He said since Supervisor Dave Rogers has become the Chair of the Madera County Board of Supervisors relations have improved.
A question on everyone’s mind is what happens if the California United Water Coalition’s actions lead to the Department of Water Resources finding the area’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan inadequate? Under SGMA that opens the door to the State Water Resources Control Board’s coming into the area and administering the SGMA process. The State Board has made it clear it will bring the area into compliance. This action is expected to include limiting pumping to strictly safe yield and imposing some very expensive fines for any violation. In other words, a draconian remedy that in likelihood could most white area growers out of business immediately. It also sets precedence for the rest of the Valley. Make no mistake the state wants control of all water in California. It is chipping away at the concept as a water right being a right – a property that belongs to a citizen.
I put that question to Nakata. He said CUWC is ready to file a lawsuit blocking the State Board’s actions. He said CUWC is forming a Groundwater Sustainability Agency based on membership. Things got a little squishy here. He told me just like if you’re a member of Madera Irrigation District you can join the CUWC GSA by becoming a member. I told him IDs don’t have memberships, you’re a member by default of geographic location.
Special districts are political subdivisions of the State of California and have boundary lines. A location such as the acreage of a farm is either in it a certain boundary or not. Nakata insisted they will form a GSA based on membership and not location.
I asked how a non-contiguous GSA could have a groundwater exchange. He said members in districts with surface water could swap pumping (credits?) with white area members. He did say there could be some engineering concerns.
Nakata also said after forming the GSA they would have to get it past LAFCo, the Local Agency Formation Committee. This is true if they can form a GSA it would have to pass LAFCo approval to become valid.
The deadline to form a GSA was 2017 and write and submit a GSP was 2020 and have long since passed. I asked Nakata how CUWC will get around this. He said they will have a legal fight on their hands but they are working with other water and SGMA groups throughout the state. I asked who these groups are and he said he wasn’t ready to release those names at this time.
“The way to solve this problem is to work with elected officials to find solutions,” said Nakata. “These problems have been around for 200 years. Why are there no solutions? Politics get in the way. We need to get rid of politics and make it a human issue.”
I’ve been wondering about the California United Water Coalition for a while now. A few months ago I reported that Pistoresi, who also farms in Kern County addressed the Semitropic Water Storage District board at their meeting. He stated Madera County staff purposely sent out 218 Election materials disguised as junk mail to prevent a no vote. This was not true. I’ve heard Nakata talk about getting increased flows in the California Aqueduct to help Madera farmers. Unfortunately the California Aqueduct is part of the State Water Project and has no conveyance to Madera County whatsoever. You could fill it to overflowing year round and it would have negligible impact on most of the San Joaquin Valley’s eastside north of Kern County.
I’m sympathetic with CUWC and all the growers who are being squeezed to the point of breaking by California’s insane water policies. The regulatory load and the continual misappropriation of surface supplies is going to put good, hard working farmers out of business, and that’s going to be sooner than later. By all means protest to the State Board, that entity is way overdue for some serious push back. And who knows perhaps some of its mission drift can be ameliorated.
But if you’re going to take donations from angry people who are up against the wall at the very least choose lawsuits you can win. Understand how GSAs and other water districts are formed and financed. Understand how GSPs are written and why. Know the difference between state and federal water projects and know where your supplies come from. Choose your battles wisely. I hope CUWC takes some time to educate itself and operate transparently and is successful. After all we want to keep farmers farming.
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