Our View: Stanislaus water ordinance, take 2

July 24, 2013 

Stapley water

The Turlock Irrigation District allows a farmer to pump thousands of gallons of groundwater per minute into a TID canal near the district's Taylor Substation off Taylor Road in Denair. A meter measures the water and the farmer takes an equal amount for crops downstream. But shallower wells of several nearby ranchettes have gone dry.

GARTH STAPLEY — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

How interesting.

Four-plus years ago, when Stanislaus County leaders asked their Agricultural Advisory Committee to draft a proposed ordinance to restrict export (sales) of groundwater outside the county, there was fierce opposition from some irrigation district leaders, who basically said, You're not in the water business; we are. Go away.

Today, one Modesto Irrigation District director, Larry Byrd, wants the county to do something immediately about the overdraft of groundwater on the east side of the county, where he and other property owners have had their wells affected by new and deeper wells drilled by others.

And one of the most ardent opponents of the county's involvement in regulating groundwater is now OK with the proposed ordinance. "I was really against this at first," MID water chief Walt Ward told the county ag committee Wednesday. "I'm pleased with where this has gotten to."

Why the changes of heart? Several things:

• The county restarted the conversation midway, calling in and consulting multiple stakeholders and later using an outside expert as a facilitator.

• The proposed ordinance has been watered down to where it only applies to the limited areas that are outside the jurisdiction of an irrigation district or other public water agency with a groundwater management plan in place. As drafted now, the prohibition on groundwater mining and exporting water would only apply to the foothills on the west and east sides of the county and to some along near the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers.

• Finally, there's justifiable alarm over the current drought and over reports that new and deeper wells are causing other people's wells to go dry or pump just small dribbles.

The draft ordinance contains so many exemptions that the obvious question becomes, what impact would it have in protecting one of our most precious resources?

The answer: It opens the door to the county having a role in groundwater regulation, something it does not have today.

Twenty-eight other counties already have groundwater ordinances, but there are citizens who don't want the government telling them where they can drill a well and what they can do with "their" water.

We think "their" belongs in quotes because there is nothing more contentious than arguments over who owns water in California.

The problem with pumping too much groundwater does not rest simply on unidentified "others" or "them." No one maintains an accurate accounting of who is pulling how much water from the below the surface, but it is safe to say that the irrigation districts and the cities — some of those who initially opposed a county groundwater ordinance — are pumping vast amounts of water, too, and they ultimately may face restrictions, as well, if our county is to have sufficient water for agriculture, domestic and industrial uses. This cannot be a situation where the regulations only apply to the other guy.

Supervisors Jim DeMartini and Terry Withrow have been heavily involved in this issue and encouraging collaboration to get something done. As DeMartini said, "it would be easier to do nothing."

County officials want to frame this not as a case of county government imposing rules on others but as the county pulling together the key players to agree on plans and regulations.

We think it is time for Stanislaus County to have an ordinance that guides and governs groundwater use. It needs to address immediate concerns but also provide flexibility for the future.

Also, water availability needs to be a bigger consideration in land use discussions, and the Board of Supervisors could benefit from having an ongoing water advisory committee, just as it has an Ag Advisory Committee and other advisory bodies.

Public comments on this draft ordinance are being accepted through Aug. 9. Then the ag committee and staff will finalize the proposal that will go to the supervisors in September. The meeting date has not been set.

It will be an interesting discussion, as it already has been. It's also an essential one.

THREE KEY POINTS

The ordinance going to the Board of Supervisors would:

• Ban the "mining" of groundwater resources within the unincorporated areas of Stanislaus County; mining is tentatively defined as "the extraction of groundwater beyond the quantity warranted, necessary or as may be customary for reasonable and beneficial uses within the county."

• Ban the export of water outside the county.

• Make broad exemptions to these bans for all irrigation districts, for conservation projects, for recharge of groundwater, for small wells (delivering 100 gallons per minute or less) for use on the same property, for places were the water table is so shallow that it damages crop roots and structures and for several other situations.

For more information on the deliberations of the Ag Advisory Committee, go to www.stanag.org/ag-advisory-board.shtm.

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