Stanislaus County leaders could approve an ordinance Tuesday to put restrictions on groundwater mining and out-of-county transfers that threaten to deplete local aquifers.
Officials said the long-awaited ordinance is a first step toward protecting a resource that supplies thousands of homes, farming operations and cities. The law would prohibit out-of-county transfer of groundwater, or surface water substituted with groundwater, unless the county approves a permit. It also would outlaw groundwater mining, defined as an unreasonable or wasteful extraction of the resource.
The proposed ordinance has 10 exemptions that would allow water districts to use groundwater for conservation projects, replace river water released for fisheries or irrigate parcels that extend just across the county line.
An initial attempt to write an ordinance four years ago was shot down by local water interests. The current proposal was developed with the assistance of water agencies such as the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts and the cities of Modesto and Turlock.
On Tuesday, county supervisors also could create a water resource manager position to advise the county Department of Environmental Resources, which would be charged with enforcing the law and reviewing permit applications. Salary and benefits for the new staff position would cost upward of $155,400 annually.
In addition, the county could create a 19-member Water Advisory Committee dealing with groundwater and additional policies to preserve the resource. The initial ordinance does nothing to curb groundwater pumping blamed for overdrafting in eastern Stanislaus County, but there is a growing outcry for elected officials to act.
The advisory panel would include representatives from irrigation districts, the nine cities, the Farm Bureau, the county and the business sector.
I understand the stakeholders are on board with this ordinance, said Vito Chiesa, county board chairman. We have already said our water is very important, and this is the beginning of looking at a more comprehensive plan.
County staff members are still working on a permit process and guidance documents for implementing the groundwater ordinance. The agenda documents for Tuesdays meeting include frequently asked questions about the proposed rules.
New wells proposed in the countys unincorporated areas would need to go through the permit process. Cities and water districts would be able to install wells inside municipal boundaries without applying to the county, with the exception of Ceres and Hughson. The county handles building inspection and permitting for the two cities.
The ordinance would not necessarily prohibit the kind of system installed by Arroyo Farms in western Stanislaus County, which ignited debate over groundwater protections in 2009. The system, composed of two wells and a pipeline to the Delta-Mendota Canal, has served to move water south to irrigate the owners orchards in western Fresno County.
Stanislaus County could permit such an operation if the owners show it has no adverse effects on neighboring wells. The ordinance sets up an appeals process for applicants who disagree with decisions by the county department. Appeals would be heard by a panel including the county chief executive officer and chairman and vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.