Gary Petersen

Gary Petersen, pictured next to the Salinas River, is general manager of the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency. 

Don't be fooled by the wet weather. There's still a looming water crisis in California. Faced with the urgency of overpumping from groundwater basins, the state Legislature passed three laws in 2014 that collectively became called the Groundwater Sustainability Act. 

In Monterey County, that led to the formation of a new agency, the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency. And that new agency just took the first step in approving annual fees for water users, both municipal, and agricultural. 

On Thursday, Feb. 14, the agency's board voted 9-1 to approve a fee structure pending minor revisions; they'll take a second vote on March 14 for final approval. 

Under the fee structure, there are two types of water use: agricultural and "all others." Ag users will be assessed a $4.79/acre fee and other users will be assessed $2.26 per service connection. (Ag accounts for more than 90 percent of the pumping from the basin.)

The new fees are part of California's effort to regulate groundwater, which has historically been treated as a "pump as you please" resource, not subject to the same restrictions as surface water, like the Carmel River that largely supplies the Monterey Peninsula. Besides agricultural users, Salinas Valley Basin cities and industrial users rely on the groundwater supply. 

The payors under the new system are those who are located within the management area for the new Groundwater Sustainability Agency, and therefore are intended to be beneficiaries of a forthcoming sustainable water management plan. 

The fees will support the new agency's operations and mandated responsibility to craft and implement such a management plan. (To start off the agency for its first two years, various stakeholders, such as the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, city of Salinas and the agriculture industry agreed to contribute according to their size.)

The agency's projected annual budget is about $1 million, which it expects to more than cover with revenue from fees, which are anticipated to generate about $1.2 million per year. 

The agriculture industry uses upward of 90 percent of the groundwater that is pumped. Non-irrigated lands, such as grazing land and open space easements, will not be charged the fee. 

Exactly which acres fall under that exemption is likely to come under scrutiny when the agency assesses Salinas Valley property owners. Before the new fee structure comes back to the board for final approval on March 14, officials plan to add more detail to the appeal process for those who want to contest the fees. 

"[There needs to be a process] if a property owner says, 'I haven’t irrigated in five years, I shouldn’t have to pay.' On the other hand, a property owner could irrigate the following year," Chief Assistant County Counsel Les Girard said. “There’s going to have to be a balance there.”

The appeal process will include a determination by the agency's general manager, Gary Petersen, then a review by the executive committee. 

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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