Groundwater problems discussed in Oakdale

gstapley@modbee.comOctober 14, 2013 

    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government

— Questions about a potential groundwater crisis were as plentiful as the 200 people who gave up their Monday evening to attend a community meeting. Answers were much more scarce.

Experts painted a dire picture of what could happen because wealthy nut investors have planted millions of almond trees and sunk hundreds of gigantic wells to water them, saying groundwater could vanish under that land and suck neighbors dry as well.

“They’re literally mining a nonreplacable resource,” said retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy, noting that one vulnerable aquifer is thousands of years old and can’t easily be recharged. “The problem needs to be addressed very soon.”

Among the civil crowd were people whose homes or small farm wells could be jeopardized. They grumbled at predictions of disaster and applauded when officials said they must move quickly to find solutions.

Kennedy said foothill rain provides about one-sixth of what almond trees require to survive. The rest comes from groundwater because nut conglomerates are planting on low-value range land outside irrigation district boundaries.

On Oct. 29, Stanislaus County supervisors will decide whether to hire a water resources manager and to create a 19-member water advisory committee. They would work together to develop answers, said Keith Boggs, an assistant executive officer.

When the county started working on a groundwater ordinance four years ago, leaders hoped to address the tricky issue of pumping regulations. Property owners now can pump as much as they want, regardless of how it affects others.

A behind-the-scenes debate ensued, and advisers watered down a proposal to deal mainly with mining and exporting well water – which most people in Monday’s audience didn’t care about. But they could care deeply if the ordinance also sets in motion the hiring of a water resources manager and creation of the advisory committee, officials told the audience. “(The draft ordinance) doesn’t fix the Vance Kennedy sky-is-falling issue,” Boggs said. “It does put your county in the game.”

County Supervisor Bill O’Brien, who represents the Oakdale area, said he sees both sides to the regulation debate. “Logic tells you with the amount of straws we keep dropping in, there is a finite amount and we can’t just keep continuing to pump it up,” O’Brien said. “But it’s tough because the county is so reliant on agriculture. We need a timeout to say, ‘Is what we’re doing in the long term best for the county?’”

Notables in Monday’s audience included county Supervisor Terry Withrow; Oakdale Councilman Michael Brennan; and irrigation district board members Larry Byrd, Michael Frantz and Frank Clark from Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale, respectively. Two Modesto Irrigation District candidates showed up, too.

“I want to assure you, we are all over this thing now,” Withrow told the audience. “I have faith we can solve this problem.”

The Oct.29 meeting of the Board of Supervisors will start at 9a.m. in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

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