Landowners approve groundwater authority tax

Colusa County landowners approved a $1.21 per acre property tax last week to pay for a new government agency to come up with a plan to monitor and sustain groundwater.

All property owners in the Colusa County portion of the Colusa Subbasin, except those living in municipal and public water districts, will see the new fee on their December tax bills, officials said.

Residential homeowners living in Colusa, Williams, Grimes, Arbuckle, Maxwell, and Princeton, will not be taxed directly but will be covered by their districts until such a time groundwater sustainability costs are incorporated into their water bills.

The new property tax will provide about $500,000 a year to the Colusa Groundwater Authority for operational expenses, reserves, and legal defense fund, officials said.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, requires the CGA to come up with a plan by 2022 that will show how the agency intends to sustain groundwater during periods of drought and climate change.

“The question of proposing a fee has not been taken lightly,” CGA Chairwoman Denise Carter told protesters at the Proposition 218 Public Hearing on June 5. “The CGA board has considered this at great length along with other options to insure that we are compliant for the next few decades with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.”

Protesters at the hearing were largely property owners in the foothills who will pay approximately 10 percent of the total raised from the taxes.

Stephen Marsh, of Williams, said he understands why his land along Myers Road should be taxed for groundwater sustainability but believes his land in the foothills should be exempt.
“If we had water, you would see orchards up and down,” Marsh said. “Up in the foothills, our land is for livestock and (we pump) a minimum of four or five gallons a minute with a solar well, unlike down in the valley. I think in the valley it is great what we are doing, but up in the foothills it’s a whole other process.”

CGA officials, however, made it clear that the tax must be distributed equally to property owners because the “public benefit” is government compliance with state law to develop a groundwater sustainability plan. Residential homeowners share the benefit but the cost to collect roughly 25 cents a year was deemed unpractical, thus the water districts will absorb the cost for now, the board said. Any actual projects that may be required to combat climate change or drought would likely be covered in the future by additional fees and taxes that are proportionate to groundwater use, including per well fees or per acre-foot of water pumped.

“There are a lot of unknowns right now,” Carter said. “As we develop a plan we will find out more of that information. Right now, this fee is helping us get started.”

Carter said she believes that the fee structure will change in the future. For now, the fee of $1.21 per acre ($121 per 100 acres) was approved for five years, but will be adjusted annually during that time based on the Consumer Price Index.

Out of the 5,647 parcels (property owners) in Colusa County who received ballots in the June 5 election, only 125 valid protests or 2.2 percent were received. A majority protest (greater than 50 percent) would have been needed for the election to fail, officials said.
In a letter delivered to the protest hearing by their attorney, property owners Ben and Laura King objected to the imposition of the fee, largely on the grounds that the CGA’s Proposition 218 process denied property owners in the cities, unincorporated residential areas, municipal water districts, and community water systems in Colusa County from participating in the stakeholder engagement process by suppressing their right to vote on the tax.

“We believe that the Proposition 218 election violates the basic U.S. and California protections of taxation without representation,” the Kings noted.

The Kings are urging the Department of Water Resources to order a revote of the Proposition 218 process to allow the owners of all parcels (approximately 13,600) to participate in the election.

“The 218 process as implemented by the Colusa Groundwater Authority is not only in violation of SGMA but acts to prevent Colusa County stakeholders the means to protect their home values, property rights, and quality of life,” their letter states. ■