A regular meeting of the Board of Supervisors of Madera County, held December 13, 2022, dealt with several topics affecting the Madera GSA. The open meeting was called to order by Chair Tom Wheeler at 10:00 a.m. in the supervisors’ chambers at the County Government Center on 4th Street in Madera. After an invocation and the Pledge, public comment was invited. Tax collector Tracy Kennedy reported that on Monday, property tax deadline day, a total of some $126 million in property taxes had been received by her office.
Next, Christina Beckstead, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, asked why several items dealing with water had not been on an agenda for a specific GSA Board meeting, instead appearing at various places on the meeting schedule. She said this made it more difficult for interested folks to listen and comment. Typically, the GSA Board meeting had been set for a start time of 10:30 a.m. Supervisor Brett Frasier said he had wondered the same thing when he had seen his meeting information.
In the first item of business, a long consent calendar was approved covering a wide range of county topics. One particular item, however, was for the GSA as well as the Department of Water & Natural Resources. A $500,000 contract with Land IQ “for remote sensing measurement services of evapotranspiration, precipitation and crop type field level to support the County Groundwater Sustainability Agencies groundwater allocation program…” The contract is to begin January 1, 2023, and continue through December 31, 2025. While there was no discussion, Department Director Stephanie Anagnoson later confirmed with WaterWrights that to help landowners conform to allocation requirements, there will be three options – satellite measurement through Irriwatch or Land IQ. Or they can also use their own pre-approved and field inspected water meters. Also included among the consent items was an agreement to pay $30,000 to the California Farmland Trust to conduct workshops and partner in outreach for the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program.
The Supervisors meeting continued until a lunch break at 12:30 p.m. When the board reconvened an hour later, the board’s legal adviser responded to the question about the agenda. She said that there were no specific actions for the supervisors as a GSA board and in any event, they are empowered to act for any of the commissions and agencies for which they have jurisdiction.
That said, the first item was discussion and consideration of the Voluntary Land Repurposing Program for the Delta-Mendota and the Madera Subbasins. (The Chowchillas Subbasin is not included because landowners voted down the 218 Proposition.) Director Anagnoson led off with an eight-slide presentation, noting that previously this had been referred to as SALC or Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation in various planning documents. But now that the transition to implementation is occurring, based on program development and stakeholder input, the VLRP term will apply. The funding is intended to come through the Proposition 218 fee, but that is currently under a court imposed temporary injunction issued on December 2nd .
(See WaterWrights report here https://waterwrights.net/madera-county-farmers-wont-pay-246-per-acre-for-now-december-7-2022/).
Anagnoson said the program is voluntary. Landowners wanting to participate would submit a bid consisting of dollars per acre. A reverse auction would allow the GSA to accept the highest bids. She said that in several informational meetings some 30 to 40 property owners had expressed interest and a per acre figure of about $600 had been discussed. The length of contracts from one-year to up to ten years is still under consideration. An important concept is that the water allocations for those accepted acres could be redistributed to the remaining eligible enrolled land, in order to soften the financial impact on the acres still in production. Demand reduction occurs based on the total allocation for all enrolled acres.
The complete set of draft rules describing everything from eligibility to payments to termination and the schedule can be found on the county website (https://www.maderacountywater.com/land-repurposing/)
Anagnoson explained that the GSA fees would still apply and that regulations for dust mitigation and weed control would be in force. She said if approved, bids could be submitted for the first four to six weeks in 2023, with bids to be evaluated and contracts drawn. First payments to owners of accepted land could be made in March.
As she completed her presentation, she said that she recommended the Board postpone action until their meeting next week on December 20th, thereby allowing all to review the changes already made in the draft rules.
Public Input on Fallowing Land
With no further discussion from the Supervisors, Chair Wheeler opened the floor for public comment. First up was Norman Allender speaking as an employee of the Fagundes family’s farming and property development enterprises. As the former director of the county planning department, he urged that any property put into easement programs be already zoned for agricultural use. He said conservation easements are permanent and any new program like VLRP should have some form of sunset.
Local grower Ryan Jones said he was an active member of the California United Water Coalition, the group that had brought suit resulting in the injunction. He said this group wants to fix the problem [of overdraft] but he didn’t believe all the responsibility should be laid at the feet of a small group of farmers. He pointed out that a $600 payment per acre would not cover the cost land purchase, taxes and dust and weed control. He said farmers can’t be expected to enter into programs that cost them thousands and thousands of dollars every year. He asked how owners of other types of businesses would react if they were told to shut down portions of their commercial activities.
Next was Michael Alamari who introduced himself not as a farmer but as a business owner and resident. He said it has been disheartening to see farmers pitted against the county, and growers in the white areas versus those in irrigation districts. He said he has seen more land posted for sale with those in the white areas fearing a loss of value and those in districts hoping for a higher price. He lamented that in the 218 vote, an owner with one acre had the same voting power as one with a 100 acres. He wondered if the plan had been only well mitigation and land repurposing, the 218 fee would have been much lower. He said the emotional wellbeing of the farmers affected needs to be taken into consideration.
Next to speak was Ralph Pistoresi, a leader in the Coalition and outspoken in his criticism of the proposed county programs. He said he had taken part in the public work groups and heard the $600 figure. He said farmers leasing at that price, by the time they pay fees, taxes and other expenses they’ll come out with zero. And if they have a land payment, then below zero. He said he believes in normal, natural land repurposing in which you pull some land out of production to use the water on the rest of the land. He said farmers have done this for a hundred years. He said we need to repurpose the way we think. He said the narrative is based on the wrong premise. Instead of starving and thirsting us to death we need the state to come through with more water for all citizens. He said we should unite across the whole state and get them to do what they are supposed to do. Why are they asking us to stop growing, he asked, when they are throwing away water sent to the ocean. He told the supervisors they should help by pushing back to get more water for the county.
Calling in on Zoom, Noah Lopez said he was with the Madera Ag Water Association. He said he wanted to reference section 5.1 of the rules which requires a minimum of ten acres, thereby not allowing smaller parcels that are assessed separately on many farms. He asked that this technical issue be addressed.
Also online and also with MAWA, Jack Rice thanked the staff for getting the rules out to the public so there is time to see them. He said the entire ag community needs to be involved in these issues to understand the scope and scale of the program… how it really will work. He wondered how a grower might be satisfied with his bid until he sees his neighbor receiving payment for a higher bid. He asked if the entire fee had to be collected next year. Maybe it could be ramped up. He urged that all the time necessary be taken in order to get the details right.
Michelle Lascoigty, a leader in the local cattlemen’s association, said she was once again speaking against the fee program. She said she farms with irrigated crop land and non-irrigated pasture land. She said the allocation rule adopted on June 8, 2021, took away her ability to sustain her family farm. She said her operation does not over-pump and is not part of the problem. She objected to the provision that did not allow her to combine the various farming types into her enrolled farm unit. She said she doesn’t have the same opportunity you are granting to those who have over-pumped.
With no more public comment, the Supervisors moved to bring this matter back for consideration at the December 20 meeting and took a break about 2:30 p.m. before moving on to other business.
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Madera County is comprised of three subbasins, designated by the CA Department of Water Resources as critically overdrafted, and “high priority”: (1) the Chowchilla Subbasin; (2) the Madera Subbasin; and (3) a portion of the Delta-Mendota Subbasin. Each of these subbasins submitted a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) by January 31, 2020. These subbasins are required to achieve “sustainability” by the year 2040. The method by which sustainability will be achieved will be illustrated in the GSP, which was be drafted in partnership by the irrigation district, water districts, cities and Madera County. The Madera County Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) is administered by the Madera County Department of Water and Natural Resources: Stephanie Anagnoson, Director, 200 W. Fourth Street, Madera, CA 93637, (559) 675-7703 x. 2265 or (559) 675-6573. The County of Madera Board of Supervisors is the Board of Directors of the GSAs for the three subbasins. The current board is composed of five members: Tom Wheeler, chair, chair, Brett Frazier, Letitia Gonzalez, Robert Poythress and David Rogers.