The first in a series of Town Hall meetings on the proposed groundwater management tax was held in Arbuckle on Thursday.
Worried Colusa County landowners thronged to the first meeting trying to wrap their heads around the Proposition 218 process that will ultimately determine how the new Colusa Groundwater Agency will be funded going forward.
The Colusa Town Hall meeting will be held March 14 at the VFW Hall on Bridge Street and the Maxwell Town Hall will be held March 20 at the Sites JPA office on Old Highway 99W. The meetings begin at 6 PM.
Mary Fahey, Colusa County Water Resources manager, said the Colusa Groundwater Agency was formed in response to passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, known as SGMA, which requires the formation of local groundwater management agencies to develop groundwater sustainability plans by 2022, with the end goal of replenishing and bringing underground basins to sustainable levels by the year 2040.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the series of bills into law in response to historically low groundwater levels at the height of the drought.
“It’s a very historic law,” Fahey said. “For the first time in California, groundwater is being regulated.”
Colusa County, the cities of Williams and Colusa, local water districts, and other partners have pitched in to get the state-mandated program up and running the past two years.
Fahey said the time has now come to figure out how to keep the CGA going in order to administer the program and comply with the law to monitor wells and report groundwater levels, among other processes, that are estimated to cost about $500,000 a year.
“We have to be able to finance the effort,” Fahey said. “It’s the law. It is essentially an unfunded mandate.”
Only property owners outside the cities (Colusa and Williams) and public water districts (residential Maxwell, Arbuckle, and Princeton) will receive Proposition 218 notices by mid April.
For the time being, the cities and public utility districts will cover the estimated 50-cent per year cost for each residential homeowner out of their General Fund.
The proposed fee to the remainder of property owners in the Colusa Basin is tentatively estimated to be between $1.21 and $1.31 per acre, and will increase annually to a maximum $1.36 per acre ($136 per 100 acres per year) in five years.
“It can’t go up after five years unless we go out for another Prop 218 process,” Fahey said. “If the $1.36 isn’t covering our budget in five years, then we will have to go out for another.”
The CGA plans to send Proposition 218 notices with the actual amount of the fee by April 19. A Public Hearing will follow within 45 days at which time protest ballots will be counted.
Fahey said the proposed fee is relatively low compared to what Fresno area landowners pay ($19 per acre) for groundwater management because Colusa Basin is larger and has less critical groundwater issues, which allows the CGA to spread the estimated costs around, she said.
If the proposal doesn’t pass, the CGA would collapse without a longterm funding source and the State Department of Water Resources would take over to implementation SMGA requirements.
“If we can’t fund it, the state will come in at a much higher cost,” she said.
Although the Department of Water Resources assisted the CGA with facilitation and technical support services, and provided a $1-million in initial Sustainable Groundwater Planning Grant funding, Fahey said the CGA’s ultimate goal is keep groundwater management local in order to keep costs at a minimum.
Fahey said landowners with one groundwater well could see fees as high at $12,300 a year for the state to manage local groundwater.
“We are trying to keep the state out, essentially,” she said. “It is better to have local control.”
Ben King, who has been the most vocal in opposing taxation to fund groundwater management efforts, called the GSA a “Trojan Horse,” because the agency will ultimately ask for more money to implement sustainability projects.
Board members didn’t disagree.
Darrin Williams, a private pumper on the CGA board, said the initial assessment, while it will cover state-required monitoring and reporting requirements and other administrative costs, would not cover an actual project that might be required in the future to keep groundwater at a sustainable level as required by SGMA.
“That’s not going to be addressed in this first five years,” he said.
“SGMA is a double-edged sword,” said board member Hillary Reinhart, a civil engineer. “It got rolled out. I looked at it in two different ways. The farmer side in me said, ‘Damn, that’s a lot of work; it’s a lot of hurdles that we are going to have to meet.’ But I think we’ve got a great team in place.”
Rinehart said the Colusa Basin has good things working in the community’s favor, particularly with groundwater, the aquifer, and surface water.
“I want to see that our communities survive; that we continue to have farming viable,” she said. “And as a team we are going to work towards that. We will keep our costs to a minimum, and we’re lucky that we are not in a position that other parts of the state are in, and we’re not in a critical overdraft position. We have some subsidence but not like other parts of the state that have two feet of subsidence a year. We’re in a good position.”
Some farmers at Thursday’s meeting said they welcome discussions now about potential projects, especially if they could significantly improve groundwater in the future.
Tom Charter, of Maxwell, said the benefit of having local control of groundwater manangement is that it could lead to a project that could capture local water runoff from big storms to recharge grounwater, which could ultimately deliver new supplies of water at a cost farmers can afford.
“A big part of our effort needs to be talking about that,” Charter said.
If the tax proposal passes, residents in areas managed by CGA can expect to see the fee included on their property tax bill in December.
If a majority (greater than 50 percent) of property owners submit written protests at the March public 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, Fahey said. ■