Tehama County Grand Jury Report Unveils Inequitable Well Registration Fees and Funding Challenges

Red Bluff, California – The Tehama County Grand Jury released its report on Thursday, highlighting multiple recommendations including the repayment of well registration fees and finding a solution to repay the funds borrowed from the county’s road department. The report was a culmination of investigations into the groundwater commission, revealing inconsistencies and inequities in the procedures used to assess fees and gather well data in the county.

According to the grand jury, the assessment of well registration fees was deemed inequitable due to inconsistent implementation and administration. The county’s process for determining the number of wells in the area is flawed, leading to uncertainty about the total number of wells. As a result, the groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) faces challenges in charging fees based on well counts. The grand jury emphasized that without accurate data, the GSA has resorted to using Assessor Parcel Numbers (APNs), acres, or individual landowners as a basis for charging fees.

Complicating matters further, there is a discrepancy in the number of APNs recorded in the county. While the State Board of Equalization Records indicates 37,407 taxable APNs, only 12,767 APNs were assessed a well registration fee in fiscal year 22/23. The grand jury questioned why the fee was not imposed on all taxable APNs as indicated by Resolution 9-2022, which applies to “each legal parcel in the Tehama County Groundwater Sustainability Agency.”

The grand jury also criticized the GSA’s inadequate communication with the public, particularly in informing landowners about planned official actions related to groundwater management. In addition, it found that the GSA borrowed $634,000 from the county’s road department to fund its activities during the 2022/2023 financial year. The grand jury raised concerns about the GSA’s intentions to reimburse the road department using grant money or landowner assessment fees, stressing that such actions could jeopardize grant funding and perpetuate inequitable practices.

Furthermore, the grand jury highlighted the GSA’s extended authority beyond designated groundwater priority sub-basins under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Landowners in areas with minimal or no groundwater resources were being assessed fees despite not falling within the priority sub-basins. The grand jury recommended that the GSA’s authority be aligned with the groundwater sub-basin boundaries defined under the act.

The effectiveness of Luhdorff & Scalmanini Consulting Engineers, the consulting group responsible for developing the groundwater sustainability plan, was also questioned. The county has submitted five different plans to the state, with four being rejected. The grand jury noted that the plans for each sub-basin were largely duplicates of each other, raising doubts about the consulting group’s deliverables and the GSA’s oversight.

To address these issues, the grand jury made four recommendations. Firstly, it called for the abandonment of resolutions 9-2022 and 4-2023, along with resolution 2118. It also proposed the return of all well registration fees collected under the current program. The grand jury urged the GSA to enhance public communication by providing mailed notifications to affected landowners and including web addresses for further information and sign-ups. Additionally, it recommended finding a viable solution, independent of grant funds, to repay the $634,000 borrowed from the road department.

In conclusion, the Tehama County Grand Jury’s report sheds light on inequities and inconsistencies in the well registration fee system and the GSA’s management practices. The recommendations aim to rectify these issues, ensuring fair and transparent processes in groundwater management while upholding the principles outlined in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.