Our View: Chair needs to keep groundwater committee on task

February 23, 2014 

BA County Layoffs 6

(BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com) - Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini during a meeting on December 7, 2010.

One thing about Jim DeMartini: He’s not one to mince words or even make nice for the sake of diplomacy. You know where the current chair of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors stands on any given topic at any given moment. And that includes groundwater.

DeMartini, a West Side farmer, will convene the first meeting of the county’s Water Advisory Committee on Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Kirk Lindsey Center, 1020 10th St. The committee has 21 members, including the county’s new water resources manager, Walt Ward. Its job is to make recommendations for rules for using and protecting groundwater – a subject that touches every person living in Stanislaus County. All of the county’s cities pump groundwater for all or part of their drinking water; those living in the county rely on the same water or have their own pumps.

This meeting could be contentious.

A lot of farmers have planted almonds on pastures outside the irrigation districts, relying on pumps to water the trees. Those pumps have lowered water tables, causing some home wells to go dry and forcing homeowners to spend substantial sums to deepen their wells.

Many who own the ground above consider any water beneath theirs, and they won’t countenance any restrictions. Others wonder why the rules governing groundwater are any different from those regulating rivers. California has worked out complex rules based on concepts that stretch back a thousand years to Spain. Under those rules, surface water is a shared resource; someone living upstream cannot deprive those downstream of water. That’s just the basics; obviously there’s a lot more to it. And no matter what the committee recommends and the board implements, there are likely to be lawsuits from those who feel their interests are harmed.

We see no reason the rules that govern surface water shouldn’t also govern groundwater. The person or entity with the biggest pump shouldn’t be able to deprive neighbors of the water they need to live and thrive. The county has already passed an ordinance banning “water mining,” or extracting water for sale outside the county.

The committee has 21 members with lots of vested interests. That’s not entirely bad. Different interests provide differing perspectives, and that can create good rules. Many of the names should be familiar – Turlock Irrigation District’s Rob Santos, Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau executive director Wayne Zipser and Modesto City Councilman Bill Zoslocki, to name a few. Others include farmers, well-drillers, water agency staff and businessmen.

Such expertise is good. But it’s critical that individual interests not bog down the proceedings. That’s where DeMartini’s skills – he’s not known for patience – could be useful. He can keep it moving. The board has signaled it wants the committee to report back in 100 days. If the committee bogs down, there’s every indication the state could step in.

Groundwater is critical to Stanislaus County and the region. Everyone on this committee knows it. We look forward to a fast start.

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