Farmers sue California for groundwater management overreach

Kings County California farmers sue the state over groundwater finding
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May 21, 2024 — Last month, the California State Water Resources Control Board announced that it was considering placing Kings County’s groundwater management agencies on probation. The move stemmed from an alleged failure by local officials and landowners to tap down on ongoing groundwater overuse in the region. As previously reported, the stakes are incredibly high, especially for small farmers.

After a hearing, the Board designated the Tulare Lake Subbasin as probationary.  The farmers are fighting back.

On May 15, the Kings County Farm BureauOpens in a new tab. and two landowners — Helen Sullivan and Julie Martella — sued the State Water Resources Control BoardOpens in a new tab. alleging among other things that the Board’s action is “an act of State overreach.”

The petitioners seek a writ of mandate to overturn the State Water Board’s Resolution No. 2024-12, which designates the Tulare Lake Subbasin as probationary under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). They also seek declaratory and injunctive relief. (Link to PDF file of the ComplaintOpens in a new tab..)

Key Points from the Complaint:

  1. Petitioners’ Request:
    • The petitioners argue that the designation of the Tulare Lake Subbasin as probationary is unlawful, exceeds the Board’s jurisdiction, and is based on a series of underground regulations that were not properly adopted.
  2. Background:
    • The State Water Board adopted Resolution No. 2024-12 on April 16, 2024, designating the Tulare Lake Subbasin as probationary due to inadequacies in its Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP).
    • The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably, and if they fail, the responsibility shifts to the State Water Board.
  3. Groundwater Sustainability Efforts:
    • Five local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) were formed in the Tulare Lake Subbasin to manage groundwater.
    • These GSAs developed and submitted a GSP in 2020, which was deemed incomplete by the Department of Water Resources (DWR). A revised GSP submitted in 2022 was also found inadequate.
  4. Allegations Against the State Water Board:
    • The petitioners allege that the State Water Board’s processes were outside its authority and lacked transparency.
    • The Board’s actions are claimed to be arbitrary, capricious, and not supported by evidence.
    • The designation is said to impose significant financial burdens on landowners through a $20 per acre-foot extraction fee for groundwater pumped in the basin.
    • The petitioners argue that the designation ignores local management efforts and shifts control to the state, which will be costly and detrimental to the local economy.
  5. Legal Claims:
    • The petition includes several legal claims, asserting that the probationary designation:
      • Exceeds the State Water Board’s jurisdiction under SGMA.
      • Is arbitrary, capricious, and lacks evidentiary support.
      • Is based on unlawful underground regulations.
      • Violates due process and equal protection under the California Constitution.

The petitioners seek judicial intervention to set aside the State Water Board’s probationary designation of the Tulare Lake Subbasin, arguing that it is based on flawed processes and exceeds the Board’s legal authority. They request the court to direct the State Water Board to vacate the designation and to declare the Board’s actions as unlawful.

What’s Next.

The Kings County Portal for the Superior Court of CaliforniaOpens in a new tab. states that a case management conference as been scheduled for September 13, 2024 at 8:15 a.m.


Kings County CourthouseOpens in a new tab., Hanford, California. Built in 1896, on the National Register of Historic Places. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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