STANISLAUS COUNTY — As Stanislaus County supervisors received a glowing report Tuesday on the surge of almond production, a couple of blocks away irrigation leaders somberly discussed the downside.
Millions of recently planted nut trees in rolling hills on the county's east side rely on groundwater pumped from scores of new industrial wells that are sure to drain aquifers, Modesto Irrigation District officials fear.
"I'm not kidding here, guys," the MID's Larry Byrd told fellow board members Tuesday, as he has before. "This is serious stuff."
MID directors hope county supervisors will do something about it soon, while supervisors say their hands are full with more important water matters. For example, they're trying to prevent an unrelated state raid on irrigation water in the name of helping fish.
Without a policy change on groundwater pumping, experts warn that dry soil could compact, leaving the earth unable to absorb water again even if we get lots of snow and rain someday. Such soil subsidence could transform the valley's east side, recently invigorated with seemingly endless rows of saplings, into a wasteland.
Byrd said the county's east side is pocked with 17,042 "straws in the ground," or wells. East of Waterford, on the north side of the Tuolumne River alone, crews are drilling up to 34 huge wells "as we speak," Byrd said.
The water table in one spot has dropped 100 feet since the owner sank a well in April, he said.
"It's not sustainable," Byrd said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out."
The issue surfaced during a wide-ranging discussion on the district's new action plan for revamping its water system. Options include higher fees for customers and selling water to outside buyers in wet years, and using proceeds to build new reservoirs.
Transferring water has been a hot-button issue. A long-term proposal to sell to San Francisco was dropped after vigorous debate in the fall, but the idea of unloading some water in short-term deals, also called spot selling, seems to be gaining momentum.
That's what Byrd wants to do with east-side almond growers. Some told Byrd they would be willing to install pipelines and to pay top prices for MID surface water, he said, and water seeping down from flooded orchards could help replenish some of what's being sucked out.
"This may be the goose that laid the golden egg, exactly what we need to get us above water," said Byrd, who ranches on the east side and recently dropped his well lower when it was going dry.
Potential for catastrophe
Tonight, a regional panel will consider allowing the Oakdale Irrigation District to absorb and begin sending water to 7,296 acres of orchards owned by Trinitas Partners LLC, one of several outfits involved in the recent gold rush of almonds and walnuts.
Board members Tom Van Groningen and Paul Warda said the potential for catastrophe suggests that this issue needs immediate attention.
But interim General Manager Roger Van Hoy said he does not intend to bring a proposal to the board until late 2014 long after Van Groningen, Warda and Glen Wild, who will not seek re-election this year, are replaced by the Nov. 5 ballot.
Aggressive pumping has forced several Denair families to sink deeper wells at costs of up to $13,000 each, and experts warn that situation will repeat as tens of thousands of rangeland acres are converted to nut orchards, particularly on the valley's east side.
Byrd said the idea of regulating pumps represents "the most politically sensitive subject there is." Although most other states control groundwater use, California does not and state officials have left the issue up to individual counties.
"(County leaders') backs are against the wall; they have to address this issue," Byrd said.
Stanislaus' five supervisors, four of whom own farmland, in September are scheduled to confront a groundwater ordinance focused on export sales, not overdraft pumping. First things first, board chairman Vito Chiesa said Tuesday, adding that he's also busy fighting a state proposal for fish that could swipe a third of the water typically used by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, making groundwater issues seem tiny.
Byrd's urging seems to contradict a stance taken three years ago by leaders of the MID, the OID and the Del Puerto Water and West Stanislaus Irrigation districts. They suggested that the county stick to planning policies and leave water issues to the water districts.
Tighter rules on irrigation?
The MID board on Tuesday reviewed other aspects of an action plan for overhauling its water system, with timelines that leave debates and decisions for most important issues until after the November election. Before then, they might consider tighter rules on irrigation practices as recommended by a volunteer advisory committee.
The board also will review ongoing automation upgrades Aug. 27.
Next year, staff will present a cost-of-service study with new detail on electricity customers paying more to keep farmers' water rates low. Walter Ward, assistant general manager for water operations, called the study "probably the most important issue" raised by the advisory committee.
Also next year, the board will confront potentially steep water rate increases. Re-forming a standing water committee to hash out issues before they reach the board level could surface in December; it was disbanded at least 20 years ago, officials said.
A special board meeting has been scheduled for 11 a.m. July 31 for an annual review of the district's retirement benefits, and the board canceled its regularly scheduled Aug. 13 meeting.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.