MODESTO — Local irrigation leaders are increasingly worried about a sudden uptick in foothill demand for well water, saying thousands of acres of newly planted almonds could devastate the region's groundwater supply.
Modesto Irrigation District board member Larry Byrd publicly suggested a radical solution Tuesday selling river water to out-of-district growers in wet years, when the district has extra, and using proceeds for canal improvements.
Retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy of Modesto sparked the unscheduled discussion during a section of the MID board meeting reserved for public comment. Excessive pumping with little replenishment could cause "an environmental disaster," he said.
Most states have laws regulating groundwater, but not California.
"As soon as you start to (discuss rules), you hear shotguns being loaded," said Walter Ward, a district assistant general manager, speaking figuratively. "People are going to defend their right to groundwater."
While the state isn't involved, most of its 58 counties have groundwater rules of some sort. Stanislaus County whose Board of Supervisors is dominated by farmers opened a can of worms four years ago by looking at something similar here.
The effort began as a check on Arroyo Farms, which moves water pumped from western Stanislaus County to land farmed by the same owners in Fresno County. Irrigation districts had no dog in that fight, but entered the fray to protect their own interests and registered strong objections.
"Water can be very contentious," said Milton O'Haire, the county's agricultural commissioner. "It's the life force of the planet."
Last year, the MID engaged in a much more controversial debate over a proposal to sell water to San Francisco. The idea was dropped in September, but not before the county's effort expanded to cover surface water exports in addition to groundwater exports.
After four years of mostly private negotiations and extensive lawyering, a draft ordinance is expected to go public in May and could reach the Board of Supervisors in July. It's not clear whether the rules would apply to Byrd's idea.
He predicted foothill growers would "pay dearly" for surface water, which normally can't be sold outside the district. He sees "a lot of dough" that could help upgrade the district's aging distribution system, he said.
Selling to San Francisco would involve iron-clad guarantees, while Byrd's idea would apply only after seasons of plentiful rainfall and mountain snowpack, he said; east side land would not be annexed to the district.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.