OUR VIEWS

Our View: We can't afford to run dry

November 23, 2013 

Tell your neighbor you’re drilling a new well and you might start a fight.

Tell a farmer that he or she can’t drill that well, and that fight is guaranteed.

Hundreds of high-capacity wells have been drilled (or are being planned) as many farmers rush to plant money trees (aka almonds and walnuts). With the prices of nuts continuously rising, it makes sense to many farmers to convert pasture and row crops into trees. Farming, after all, is a business – and the nut business is good.

Trees, however, need about 36 inches of water every year. If they don’t get it, they die and the farmer’s investment is lost. That’s why farmers without water guaranteed by irrigation districts usually plant row crops or use their land for cattle.

Now, some well-financed farmers without those guarantees are opting to drill deep wells and use high-capacity pumps to tap the aquifers beneath their land. There are dozens of permits awaiting action by Stanislaus County; hundreds of wells have already been drilled and millions of gallons of water are already coming up from underground.

The problem is that the aquifers don’t stop at anyone’s property line. They underlie vast swaths of acreage shared by many farmers and they’re connected vertically and horizontally. When one farmer draws water from beneath his property, he lowers the water table beneath the land of his neighbors. If that neighbor is relying on a shallower well, it can go dry. And that’s when the harsh words begin. Or the lawsuits.

Long-standing laws prevent a farmer from damming a stream on his property and depriving downstream neighbors of water.

“(Using the big pumps) is the same thing,” said Vance Kennedy, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist and hydrology expert. “If you don’t have water, you’re wiped out. You can’t very well sell a house or land without water.”

As these well-financed farming operations drill and pump, a great many small landowners (farmers or not) are in jeopardy. If they go dry, they’ll likely sue and we’ll be in another water war.

That’s why Stanislaus County supervisors passed an ordinance in late October to regulate large-scale groundwater removal and to hire a water-resource manager to oversee implementation of the law and how the water is used. It was an utterly necessary step and one already taken by many California counties. The ordinance, which doesn’t have much teeth, was five years in the making. Unfortunately, in that time, pumping has increased dramatically.

Every city in the valley draws all or part of its water from wells. That’s led the Turlock City Council and a director of the Oakdale Irrigation District to demand a moratorium on permitting new wells.

With the subsidence in Merced County documented by the USGS this week – threatening canals, bridges, rail lines and other public structures – halting any additional pumping is appealing. As Kennedy put it, “It’s really important that we learn from what’s happening in Merced County.”

It’s a lesson we should have learned 50 years ago when overpumped aquifers in Fresno County resulted in 20 to 30 feet of subsidence. Roads caved in, rails buckled, large sinkholes opened.

Subsidence does not occur uniformly. George Britton, a former Modesto city manager but also a veteran of water politics after 20 years in Arizona, described “differential subsidence,” in which houses can be cut in two, swimming pools broken in half and fences split. “It’s a substantial risk to urban facilities,” he said.

So, should the county slap a moratorium on new drilling and pumping and suspend consideration of new permits?

No. Such a knee-jerk moratorium would provoke lawsuits. And that could have the unintended consequence of tying up the county in court and delaying a defensible ordinance that could halt overpumping.

So, should we simply wait for yet-unappointed county officials to swing into action?

No. We want them to be ready to act immediately. They will need policy specifics and concrete goals. Here are a few to consider:

• A firm timetable. Many, including Kennedy, feel it might already be too late to guarantee water for foothills residents living near huge new pumps. So we can’t afford a lot of time spent deliberating pros and cons. That’s a tactic used by lawyers and PR firms. It’s already started. In a recent meeting, a spokesman told the audience that drilling 600 feet for a well wouldn’t affect higher aquifers, from which neighbors’ small-scale pumps drew water.

“That’s hogwash,” said Kennedy. Aquifers are connected in three dimensions. A huge pump can impact wells “thousands of acres” away.

We should articulate reasonable new pumping rules within four to six months.

• Anyone installing a nonexempt pump (over 100 gallons per minute) should be required to submit an environmental impact statement. In other words, they must explain how their project will or won’t affect neighbors. Since the county says it doesn’t have enough information about the impact of wells, these environmental reviews would help provide it.

• County supervisors should start now articulating exactly what they want to accomplish. Give the committee and the water boss clear marching orders.

• Recognize there’s a lot of money at stake. Ag is our county’s lifeblood, so we do not want to inhibit anything that grows. But we don’t want to see farmer fighting farmer. We’ve been there, done that.

We must regulate our groundwater basin. Because, said Britton, “we don’t want to turn our valley into a desert.”

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