Stanislaus County supervisors, many of them farmers, hold power over groundwater

gstapley@modbee.comFebruary 22, 2014 

Who better to fix a potentially serious farming problem than a bunch of farmers?

Of Stanislaus County’s five elected supervisors – those with power to regulate the diminishing groundwater heavily relied on by all cities and many farms – four are farmers themselves.

Two, Vito Chiesa and Jim DeMartini, are born and bred full-time farmers. Terry Withrow and Bill O’Brien, an accountant and grocer, respectively, donned overalls later in life and are more agricultural hobbyists. And the fifth supervisor, Dick Monteith, spent his pre-state Senate career selling tractors, produce boxes and egg flats.

These guys know farming. Most campaigned on agricultural promises and have consistently cast farm-friendly votes over the years.

On the other hand, doesn’t advancing one’s economic interests present a conflict of interest?

Yes, in some cases. For example, you’re not supposed to vote on tax breaks for farmland if you own any.

For many years, Stanislaus supervisors have gotten around that speed bump by randomly drawing straws, as allowed by law, before voting on such Williamson Act contracts. The two supervisors with short straws have joined Monteith to approve what amounts to taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Voting on future groundwater policy may not pose the same sort of conflict, as no supervisor owns land on the east side. That’s the most likely area for a groundwater crisis because that’s where growers have planted millions of nut trees in recent years, cashing in on rising global demand while pumping from underground aquifers with no plan to replenish them.

Unlike most states, California has not regulated pumping, leaving that political hot potato to local agencies. Stanislaus supervisors, recently sued by environmental lawyers saying the county has permitted too many wells, three weeks ago created a water committee to study the situation and propose rules for supervisors to consider.

The committee’s long-awaited first meeting arrives Wednesday, and the process already is soaked in politics.

“It’s obvious to me that we need to put a moratorium on wells till we get a groundwater model and see how serious the situation is,” DeMartini said. “Instead, we’ve got this 21-member committee and I’m not sure they’ll agree what day of the week it is. And there are serious conflicts of interest on that committee.”

Appointees include farmers, two well drillers, a mayor and three councilmen from different cities, three irrigation district board members, a political consultant and a hydrogeologist.

DeMartini, this year’s chairman of the board, also takes issue with the man the board hired to herd the panel – Walter Ward, a former Modesto Irrigation District assistant general manager in charge of water operations. DeMartini said Ward presented “the biggest obstacle to getting anything done” during the county’s four-year struggle leading to the October adoption of a groundwater export ordinance that broadly exempts irrigation districts. DeMartini and Ward will serve as nonvoting members of the committee.

The other supervisors acknowledge the panel’s uphill climb, but don’t share DeMartini’s pessimism.

“I’m very optimistic,” Withrow said, “but they’ll have to check their allegiances at the door. A team is going to solve this problem, so we want everyone to be a team player. If they’re just there to take care of themselves, they probably shouldn’t be there.”

Chiesa prefers to see the committee members’ conflicts as proof that they have the real-world expertise that will be crucial to finding solutions.

For example, the concept of constructing groundwater recharge basins – places to capture extra flows in wet years, for use in dry – would get nowhere without buy-in from irrigation districts, because they’re the only entities capable of delivering that water in the first place. Why exclude the districts from the committee, Chiesa said, and risk their disapproval?

“We need them to be there, first and foremost,” he said.

County Counsel John Doering said including those with the most to gain and lose helps provide checks and balances. “If one wants to feather his own nest, others in the group will say, ‘Wait a minute; that’s a little unfair.’ They’ll watchdog themselves,” he said.

Doering can’t anticipate whether individual supervisors might be conflicted until the committee proposes policy. If so, he said, supervisors might have to draw straws again.

Meanwhile, to keep all cards on the table, The Modesto Bee took a look at the agricultural and water interests of supervisors, who will have the final say on groundwater policy.

Chiesa

It might have been hard to find a more dyed-in-the-wool farmer than Chiesa when he was elected to the board in 2008. Besides a lifetime spent spraying, hulling and plowing, he had served as president of the county farm bureau and was on the bureau’s state board.

These days, extensive government commitments often take him away, but Chiesa continues to manage the family farm with his father and brother. They own 40 percent of the 600 acres they farm near Hughson, lease the rest and produce mostly almonds and walnuts.

Of the four supervisor farmers, Chiesa’s reaction to drought might best illustrate the jeopardy that many growers face this year.

Usually, Chiesa Ranch Inc. gets moisture almost exclusively from the Turlock Irrigation District. This year, the operation will turn to a well, little used since drilled in response to the drought of 1976-77, for about 30 percent of the trees’ needs. That could amount to 100 acre-feet, or 100 football fields a foot deep in water.

Also, the ranch removed 15 acres of walnut trees. Although aging, they continued to produce and would have brought good money, but using elsewhere the water they would have consumed is more important this year, Chiesa said. He might “deficit irrigate,” or apply less water than usual, on 1-year-old trees that are not yet bearing nuts, giving them just enough to keep them alive. And he won’t plant oat or corn silage this year because those thirsty crops demand more water than trees.

“I’m going to have enough, I believe, if we get 20 inches” from TID, Chiesa said. “I think.”

“I imagine yields will suffer” for farmers this year, he continued, “while prices will go up. But there is not a soul I know of sitting here saying, ‘I’m golden.’ 

The ranch continues to add microdrip irrigation equipment, which is much more efficient than flooding orchards. After a dozen years of incremental improvements, about 65 percent of the Chiesa operation uses low-volume irrigation, and they plan to complete the conversion in an additional six years.

DeMartini

Compared to his board brethren, DeMartini has by far the largest and most diverse farm. He’s also the least vulnerable to drought, thanks to several pumps sucking large quantities of water from the Tuolumne River and delivering it straight to 300 of his 1,100 acres.

DeMartini spends most mornings directing activity on the farm, which includes walnut, almond, pistachio and peach trees, as well as grapes. He still grows some row crops such as pumpkins and melons, too.

“I like the challenge of growing different things,” he said.

His once-300-acre farm ballooned when DeMartini took a leap of faith and bought riverfront property repossessed by a bank in 1989. That gave him coveted 1938-era riparian rights to river water, freeing him from drought worries for about a third of his farm, as long as the Tuolumne doesn’t turn into a trickle.

The rest is fed by TID canals and two huge wells.

“I never run out of water,” DeMartini said. In fact, part of his land has the exact opposite problem: Groundwater is so plentiful that it’s sometimes pumped away to keep tree roots from rotting.

Withrow

The drought should not prove disastrous to the 10 acres of wine grapes around Withrow’s home west of Modesto. He augments MID deliveries with his own well water.

But his 300 acres of almonds near Firebaugh in Fresno County, representing what he called “the biggest investment of my life,” are anything but safe.

On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that farm contractors on the federal Central Valley Project will get zero water this summer, affecting 3 million acres and sending shock waves through the Valley’s farm industry.

Withrow and a partner had leased the Firebaugh land a decade ago from his wife’s family and planted almonds. To feed them, they transfer water credits from 1,600 unplanted acres near Los Banos with rights to water in San Luis Reservoir.

Friday’s bombshell does not mean Withrow’s trees will die, because he had banked enough water from last year to keep them alive this summer and federal officials can’t take that. But beyond this year, all bets are off.

“It’s very scary,” Withrow said. With one more harvest, he should be able to repay the loan. If the drought continues next year and “everything crashes, at least I’ll break even,” Withrow said. “Sometimes I kick myself” for entering a high-risk business, he continued, “but it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

A four-year struggle leading to the board’s groundwater export ordinance may have affected Withrow’s in-laws more than anyone else in the county.

His brother-in-law, Jon Maring, was among a group of farmers that pumped well water mined from west Stanislaus County for transfer credits benefiting land that it also farms in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, and others had positioned for similar deals. A few see that practice as a smart use of a farmer’s available resources, while others oppose exporting a natural resource – especially if sold at a profit – saying it might lead to bidding wars favoring the wealthy at the expense of the Valley’s general health.

Withrow is in the latter camp and endorsed the ordinance at the peril of frosty family events; he said he and Maring remain “very close” and called his brother-in-law a “very good guy.”

O’Brien

O’Brien is better known for the business that bears his family’s name – O’Brien’s Market, where he works as vice president. The accidental farmer’s spare time is split between government duties and the 28-acre walnut orchard he never aspired to own.

A part-interest in land east of Modesto turned into full ownership when the other party got out. So O’Brien rolled up his sleeves, soaked in advice from a farmer cousin and taught himself and his children how to plant and fertilize walnut trees.

“I’m just nuts, baby,” O’Brien joked. “My tractor is a Ford pickup truck. It’s been a family adventure.”

His saplings, only 2 years old, don’t need as much water as mature, nut-bearing trees, so his reduced allotment from MID should be enough to keep them alive.

“I don’t have near the knowledge of Jim or Vito,” O’Brien said, “but I’m learning.”

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

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