Local groundwater agency initiates Prop 218 tax assessment 

Dave Ceppas, from left, Darrin Williams, Hilary Reinhard, Colusa City Manager Jesse Cain and CGA Chairwoman Denise Carter speak to the need for local control of groundwater management at a workshop at the Colusa Indian Community conference room on Jan. 31.

Groundwater is something that benefits everyone, so just about everyone in Colusa County will have to pay for managing it.

The Colusa Groundwater Authority (CGA), a Joint Powers Agreement between Colusa County, the cities of Williams and Colusa, and local water and reclamation districts, is expected to notify all property owners this week that they are proposing an annual tax assessment to fund the state mandate to develop and sustain groundwater as a defense against drought. 

California is one of the last states to regulate groundwater usage, and in some areas, particularly in the Arbuckle area of Colusa County, groundwater is being depleted faster than it is being replenished, leading to sinking ground in heavily farmed areas, CGA officials said at a public workshop on Thursday. 

The CGA Board of Directors plan to hold a majority protest election under Proposition 218, with the formal hearing slated for March. 

A similar process is being held by the Glenn Groundwater Agency portion of the Colusa Sub basin, formed around the same time as the CGA, following the passing of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a three-bill legislative packaged signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 that required local governments to establish “groundwater sustainability agencies,” or GSAs, for each groundwater basin in their jurisdictions. 

Colusa County Supervisor Denise Carter, CGA chairwoman, said the county could have opted out of managing its own groundwater, but that the California Department of Water Resources would take over, resulting in substantially higher costs to all water users. 

“This is the only way to have local control of our groundwater,” Carter said. 

While Carter said no one wanted or asked for stringent new legislation, counties and cities who use groundwater are mandated to complete a number of tasks, including the creation of management plans, quantify and monitor the amount of groundwater in each basin, collect and report data, remediate polluted groundwater, and develop a potential path to sustainable groundwater management. 

SGMA stipulates such plans must be in place for basins that are in critical overdraft by 2020 and for all basins that are at high to medium overdraft by 2022. 

Colusa County is within one of 100 water basins in California meeting those criteria, and CGA’s partnering agencies, including the City of Colusa, which operates five groundwater wells, have been working two years to build the agency from the ground up. 

Colusa City Manager Jesse Cain said local control is the only way to manage local groundwater because the state is authorized to step in as the enforcing agency if the local agencies can’t or won’t do it. 

“This is better than the state coming in and telling us what we can or cannot do,” Cain said. 

Property owners will be asked to pay $1.31 per acre per year ($131 per 100 acres) to fund the agency, which estimates a cost of around $500,000 per year.  

All property owners in Colusa County, outside Reclamation District 1004, will be charged the fee if the Proposition 218 election passes. 

Owners of less than one acre parcels living in Colusa, Williams, and the unincorporated towns within Colusa County could be charged around 46 cents a year for groundwater management. 

Cain said Colusa plans to incorporate the small fee in their regular rate structure, rather than having it assessed on residential property taxes, and he encourages other public utility districts to do the same for their water customers. 

Carter said the total fees collected cannot exceed the actual annual cost of the agency’s operation, and that it was possible that the annual fee could go down if the agency feels that an excess is being collected. 

The GSA board can only adjust the fee upward to the consumer price index if they feel the assessment does not quite cover the actual costs of the agency, she said. 

The fee will be set for five years, after which the GSA board would have to initiate a new Proposition 218 process to continue groundwater management. 

While there was some criticism at Thursday’s workshop that the CGA board chose to do an election by which the majority must protest for the tax assessment to fail rather than a majority consent for the assessment to pass, most property owners agreed they would prefer local control to state control when it comes to implementing groundwater sustainability strategies. 

“I think this is something that we need to get behind,” said Arbuckle farmer Michael Doherty.  

If the assessment passes, residents in areas managed by the new GSA can expect to see the fee included on their property tax bill or their water utility bill by the end of the year, officials said. 

If a majority (50% +1) of property owners submit written protests at the March hearing, the CGA cannot collect the fee as proposed, which means the CGA would eventually dissolve and the management of groundwater would revert to the state for SGMA implementation, they said. ■