Monday Q&A: Falling groundwater levels pose problems for region

jnsbranti@modbee.comOctober 13, 2013 

  • At a Glance

    Name: Michael Cooke

    Title: Municipal services director, city of Turlock, since Sept. 1

    Duties: Oversight of water, sewer, stormwater, streetlights, traffic signals, vehicles and buses

    Experience: Employed by Turlock since 1992 in jobs that included planner, planning manager, regulatory affairs manager and deputy director of municipal services

— After two dry winters and increased demand for groundwater, a smattering of residential wells have come up empty this year in the Turlock Groundwater Basin.

And now that new pumps are irrigating literally millions of Stanislaus County almond trees with groundwater, concerns are rising about whether there’s enough water to go around.

Michael Cooke, Turlock’s municipal services director, outlined the groundwater situation last month in a presentation before the Agricultural Advisory Committee to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.

Cooke says groundwater levels have dropped by more than 100 feet the last 40 years around Turlock. If that drawdown continues, it could cause serious problems for the region’s future. He shares his expertise in easier-to-understand terms for this Q and A.

Q. Please tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

A. As of Sept. 1, I am the municipal services director for the city of Turlock. I have worked for the city of Turlock since 1992, when I moved here from the United Kingdom.

I have the privilege of working with incredibly dedicated and hardworking professionals who are responsible for providing water, wastewater and stormwater services to our community.

Our department is also responsible for the maintenance of the city’s streetlights, traffic signals, vehicles and buses.

Q. As the populations of Turlock, Ceres, Hughson, Denair and surrounding communities have grown, so too has groundwater pumping for municipal needs. Why should city residents be concerned about increased pumping?

A. Our region depends entirely on groundwater for our municipal water supply – we have all of our eggs in one basket. There are increased pressures on the groundwater due to urban growth and, particularly, the conversion of rangeland to irrigated farmland in the eastern portion of Stanislaus County.

Most people don’t know that urban areas account for about 10 percent of the groundwater use in the Turlock region, 46,000 acre-feet per year. Agricultural pumping accounts for 90 percent of groundwater pumping, 460,000 acre-feet.

Over time, it has become increasingly difficult for cities to provide an adequate water supply. Furthermore, the quality of the groundwater is worsening. Groundwater is a diminishing resource: We are using it up faster than it is being replenished.

Q. What’s being done to address the water shortage?

A. As a community, Turlock has made great progress in managing our precious groundwater resources. We filter stormwater and use it to water our parks, we send recycled water to the Turlock Irrigation District for cooling at the Walnut Energy Center, and we use recycled water to irrigate Pedretti Park.

Turlock residents also have made a great effort to conserve water. Despite considerable population growth in Turlock, water use is down significantly. In 2012, Turlock pumped about 7 billion gallons of groundwater, or 21,500 acre-feet. That’s the same volume we pumped in 1999 even though the population has grown by 17,000 people – a 30 percent increase during that same 13-year period.

Unfortunately, conservation, recycling and water reuse may not be enough to ensure we have a long-term, reliable water supply. One potential solution Turlock is pursuing is to diversify our potable water supply by obtaining surface water from TID.

Turlock is a member of the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority – a joint powers authority with the cities of Modesto and Ceres – that is working with TID on obtaining drinking water from the Tuolumne River. This project represents a long-term, stable supply of high-quality drinking water.

We recognize that surface water is expensive, but the costs of providing groundwater will increase too. I was told a few weeks ago that “all the cheap water is gone.” Unfortunately, it’s probably a very true statement.

Q. How seriously are water levels dropping in the Turlock groundwater basin, and why is it happening?

A. Groundwater levels have been dropping significantly – more than 100 feet – in the Turlock region since the 1970s. Primarily, this decline is due to the conversion of rangeland in the eastern portion of our county to permanent crops, such as orchards and vineyards.

We have also seen a decline in groundwater levels in Turlock over the past 30 years as we have pumped more water to meet residential and industrial needs.

Q. What legal limits are there on how much groundwater can be pumped, and are more laws needed to protect this region’s water supply?

A. California is one of the few states that does not regulate groundwater pumping.

While increased groundwater pumping is a concern, we recognize that those installing new wells are doing nothing wrong – under current law, they are entitled to drill wells on their land. However, we need to be aware that we are all in this together: If we don’t cooperate to ensure that groundwater use is sustainable, the state of California may intervene.

In my government career, I have yet to see intervention by the state of California result in a positive outcome for the local community.

Turlock’s economy, like the region’s, relies heavily on agriculture. Our biggest industries are food processors that employ thousands of people. The growers and dairymen provide the raw materials – milk, nuts and chickens – that Turlock industries turn into food products.

All interested parties need to work together to ensure that the use of groundwater is sustainable. The decline of the groundwater in the Paso Robles region has reached crisis proportions, but urban and agricultural interests are working together to develop a reasonable solution. Perhaps we can do something like that here.

Q. Should city residents be concerned about all the new orchards being planted in eastern Stanislaus County? Why?

A. Yes and no. Agriculture is the backbone of the local economy, and the new orchards represent an investment in our region and economic development. That’s a real positive.

On the other hand, all of these new orchards are reliant upon groundwater for irrigation, which may result in a further decline in groundwater levels. We need to work together to improve our local economy while protecting our groundwater and surface water supplies for generations to come.

Q. Any final thoughts?

A. Yes. One of Turlock’s history books is “Streams in a Thirsty Land.”

Since TID built the amazing canal system and the cities developed reliable drinking water systems, we’ve become complacent and have forgotten that this is indeed a “thirsty land” we live in.

People from all over the state are looking at our region to solve their water issues. We should use regional water supplies to address our region’s needs first.

Stanislaus County has a long history of this. In 1887, Assemblyman C.C. Wright from Modesto introduced landmark legislation that allowed for the fair distribution of water rights and the establishment of public irrigation districts.

I think of my counterparts in Modesto and of their city’s logo: “Water” is a precursor to “wealth, contentment and health.” Slaking the thirst of this land will become increasingly challenging; we will have to look at our regional water resources differently.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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