Expert to talk possible groundwater solutions at Modesto Junior College

gstapley@modbee.comOctober 24, 2013 

— Pumping is an artificial way of “releasing” underground water. When too much pumping threatens the supply, could artificial replenishing be a solution?

Hydrogeologist Chris Petersen thinks so, and he’s ready to tell all about it.

Groundwater depletion, whether because of overpumping, drought or both, is not unique to Stanislaus County, said Petersen, who will speak tonight at a Modesto Junior College lecture series. He intends to share lessons learned from other areas facing similar crises.

“It’s up to locals to decide how to deal with it, but having seen how others have, here is what has worked and some next steps you might take,” Petersen said.

Artificial recharge is one option. Petersen will explain how his clients – mostly agricultural districts and cities – and others have created underground lakes by injecting water during wet years, when there is extra.

Flood irrigation employed by thousands of area farmers works similarly, allowing water to seep down after feeding crops, experts say.

But farmers in the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts received less surface water via the Tuolumne River this year, after two abnormally dry winters. Many made up for it by pumping more.

Groundwater is strained further by scads of huge industrial wells keeping alive millions of new almond trees on the Valley’s east side, on previously marginal rangeland.

Some predict disaster if leaders don’t take action to regulate pumping.

Many small, private wells have gone dry in the Denair area this year, often costing homeowners more than $10,000 to drill new ones.

Ruth Sousa’s 115-foot well, for example, went kaput four months ago. The 82-year-old widow, living on a fixed income, stares hard at the $13,000 estimate for a new 300-foot well, knowing that the temporary hook-in to her son’s deeper well next door is not a permanent solution.

“I know I’m not as bad off as some people out there, but it is a real hardship,” Sousa said. “Thirteen thousand dollars is a real chunk of money and can take down a modest savings account in a hurry.”

City Council members in nearby Turlock voted Wednesday to ask county supervisors to consider a moratorium on large new wells while pumping rules are explored, drafted and adopted, which could take months or even years. MID candidate Jim Mortensen requested the same thing a month ago.

Supervisors on Tuesday are scheduled to consider hiring a water resources manager and creating a 19-member water advisory committee. They would work together to develop answers.

Meanwhile, pressure continues to build. Tonight’s lecture follows an informational event last week organized by the Eastside Groundwater Coalition, a small group of worried property owners. That presentation drew 200 people.

“We seek out people who can speak first-person on research they’re doing on topics that are relevant to our community,” said Noah Hughes, an MJC instructor in charge of tonight’s Modesto Area Partners in Science event. “In this case, the topic is very timely and relevant.”

This evening’s presentation is at 7:30 in Sierra Hall on the MJC West Campus, 2201 Blue Gum Ave. Parking is free after 5 p.m. To learn more, go to maps.events.mjc.edu/10_25_13b.htm.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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