Last spring, in the midst of their crusade against the Modesto Irrigation District proposal to sell water to San Francisco, opponents asked the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors to intervene.
Although the five supervisors clearly had personal opinions about the sale, they stayed out of the fight because the county has no jurisdiction over such actions by independent government entities such as the MID. Basically, the county isn't in the water business.
In 2013, that could change.
For several years, the county has been quietly studying whether it should adopt an ordinance to regulate water exports outside of the county. A new timeline proposes that this question could come to a head and a board vote in July.
The discussion started in 2009, in the third year of a drought that had left many on the West Side and in south San Joaquin Valley with only a small portion of their normal irrigation water. It was prompted by the fact that a few West Side farmers were shipping groundwater pumped from their Stanislaus County acreage to property they owned farther south in the valley, in the San Luis Water District, one of those hardest hit by the water shortage.
Some people were outraged that this valuable Stanislaus asset was going out of county, with no one having any say over the matter. It raised the spectre that such exports might become commonplace, that farmers could make more money by selling their water and shipping it elsewhere than they would by growing the crops here. The finances might work for those farmers, but jobs would disappear; it could raise havoc with our ag economy. Rick Robinson, then-county chief executive officer, asked the county's Agricultural Advisory Board to come up with a proposed groundwater export ordinance.
The subject been under discussion ever since, though largely off the public radar. The 11-member advisory board has public meetings but they rarely draw a crowd. But make no mistake, the irrigation districts and other key players were paying close attention and they mostly weren't happy about the proposal.
As controversy grew over the proposed MID sale, the county's proposed ordinance was expanded to include the county regulating surface water export as well.
Even with the latest draft providing exemptions for irrigation districts and grandfathering in the ongoing sale of water by Arroyo Farms the West Side operation that is moving about 4,000 acre-feet a year to its out-of-county property there is strong opposition to the proposed ordinance.
The common themes:
The county ordinance would simply create another bureaucracy and more fees for farmers and for existing districts to pay.
There isn't a serious problem with water exports, and there are plenty of existing regulations and entities, including the state Department of Water Resources and the California Environmental Quality Act, to deal with this issue.
The county has neither the personnel nor the expertise to handle such complex water issues.
The ordinance does not deal with a real problem the overdraft of groundwater in some parts of the county that is not the result of water exports but of more water being pumped for expanding ag use, especially for almonds.
That while groundwater is being overdrawn in some areas, the challenge in other areas is that the water level is too high and water must be drained away in order for farmers to grow crops and get the best production from their orchards.
That the county now sees itself as the steward of water resources but hasn't fully endorsed existing efforts to manage groundwater through interagency groundwater basin management plans.
That irrigation districts and farmers have for decades used a mix of surface and groundwater. When there's less snowpack in the Sierra and less water in the reservoirs, then more groundwater is used to irrigate.
Proponents of a county groundwater export ordinance argue that Stanislaus has a key role to play because it has authority over land use, which is clearly impacted by water availability. Furthermore, more than half of California's 58 counties have some sort of groundwater regulations.
We like the fact this proposal is generating a healthy debate, although we would like to see it in a more open forum. The next step proposed by county staff is for a smaller stakeholders group to refine this draft ordinance before it goes to the supervisors. We think those meetings should be open to the public, specifically the many interested parties. While it can be difficult to put together a sound plan in the midst of sharp critics, we believe that openness creates credibility in the long run.
Last summer, the Board of Supervisors had no say in the MID's proposed water sale, which was eventually nixed.
Next summer, county supervisors are likely to be on the hot seat themselves, facing a critical decision on whether they will assume some control of water that will affect not just the MID but every other water or irrigation district in the county, including the cities, which all depend on groundwater to some extent.
If the supervisors adopt an ordinance, then we can be sure that there will be lots of debate over how restrictive it should be.
The adage has reached everyday reality in Stanislaus whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.
April 2009 Groundwater mining or extraction ordinance first suggested and referred to the county Agricultural Advisory Committee. A subcommittee assigned to begin study.
January 2010 Subcommittee offers first draft of an ordinance. It is circulated to irrigation districts, cities and others, most of whom have serious objections.2011 Legal review continues through the year.
June 2012 Revised draft of ordinance would extend the county's authority to include regulating the export of surface (river and reservoir) water when groundwater is used to replace or supplement the exported surface water.
August Summary of comments compiled. Again, many objections.
December Timeline calls for bringing in an outside facilitator, establishing a water stakeholder working group.
March-April 2013 Proposal to share latest ordinance draft with city managers and participants in past water summits.
May Ag advisory to make its final recommendation.
July Proposed ordinance to go to Board of Supervisors.
For more information: The first and second draft ordinances, plus copies of the comments and the Ag Advisory Committee minutes, are available on the county website: http://is.gd/oIHDVU. For those who don't have Internet access, call the Agricultural Commissioner's office at (209) 525-4730.