Our View: Good start for Stanislaus County groundwater committee

February 26, 2014 

There were several positives in the first meeting of the Stanislaus County Water Advisory Committee, which is tasked with developing recommendations on the equitable management and regulation of groundwater in Stanislaus County.

First, the county gave the 19-member committee a June 11 deadline to report back to the Board of Supervisors. That creates a sense of urgency, which is desperately needed during a drought that has reached crisis dimension. Some farmers have drilled huge wells, which threaten to lower water tables in several parts of the county.

Second, Wayne Zipser, executive director of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, was elected chairman. Zipser’s countywide connections, knowledge of water and obvious ties to the county’s most important industry create a sense of fairness. A good choice.

Third, the county’s newly appointed water resources manager, Walt Ward, promised that deliberations would be open and public, saying that good communication builds trust.

He hardly could have said anything else. The Kirk Lindsey Center meeting room was standing-room-only. That’s because groundwater is utterly vital in the Valley. Farmers depend on it, but so does every city for drinking water.

The committee’s first guest, Sarge Green of the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State, made that abundantly clear. Green has run a water district, is a groundwater consultant and once worked for the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board. Green’s most compelling comments had less to do with the technical aspects of water-bearing strata than with equity. When a person in the audience wondered if groundwater priorities had to include fish, apparently a proxy for environmental uses, Green’s immediate response was, “Absolutely.”

He explained the guiding principles of use, including usufruct – a Latin term that means you can use a resource but you can’t use it up; there must be enough for others who count on it and those who will count on it in the future.

Groundwater, pointed out Green, does not respect “institutional” boundaries like property lines or borders. So pumping does affect neighbors. He also noted the demands on water used for fracking and in “land conversion” from pasture to nut trees. He explained that subsidence has averaged 6 inches a year in some parts of the Valley. He pointed out that along with scarcity, quality issues must be considered.

He laid out an ambitious agenda for the committee.

It’s a good start, but only a start.

The hard work has just begun. And it’s not just the board paying attention. The state has an abiding interest in groundwater, preferring that local entities make their own decisions – as long as they make good ones.

The committee will meet either once a week or twice a month, depending on how fast information can be gathered by the companion Technical Advisory Committee. Hopefully, every entity asked for information will make it a priority to provide it. Once it is in hand, the committee’s first goal must be to create a list of equitable and sustainable rules for groundwater use.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service