Experts: New Stanislaus County orchards to gulp as much groundwater as 480,000 people

jnsbranti@modbee.comMarch 1, 2014 

The cumulative impact of rapidly expanding almond orchards in eastern Stanislaus County soon may create a massive drain on the region’s groundwater supply.

An estimated 4 million newly planted trees are expected to start consuming as much water as 480,000 people.

That’s roughly the population of Sacramento, and more than twice the population of Modesto.

This city of thirsty trees has taken root virtually unregulated on what had been dry grazing land along the county’s far eastern and northeastern edge.

Data compiled for The Modesto Bee by Stanislaus County Assessor Don Gaekle shows when and where new permanent crops – like almonds, walnuts and grapes – were planted from 2001 through fall 2013.

There were 82,800 acres planted countywide during those years, including old orchards that were replanted with new trees.

But nearly half of those planted acres were on the county’s eastern edge, where few orchards had existed. That’s because that region is mostly beyond the watering reach of the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts.

Here’s the key statistic from Gaekle’s numbers: 30,043 acres of primarily almonds have been planted since 2001 on what had been nonirrigated east side grazing land. Those new orchards, which typically average about 124 trees per acre, now are being nourished by groundwater wells.

New orchards and new wells in that region continue to multiply: Last year alone, nearly 7,000 acres of trees and vines were planted on the county’s eastern edge.

39 billion gallons a year

Sarge Green, program director for the California Water Institute at California State University, Fresno, said almond orchards typically consume 4 acre-feet of water per acre per year. That’s more than 1.3 million gallons of water per acre annually.

Green said Valley residents, by contrast, consume an average of only 82,125 gallons per year, which is roughly a quarter of an acre-foot of water.

So 16 people use about the same amount of water as 1 acre of almonds. Green said that means 30,000 acres of never-before-irrigated land will require as much groundwater as 480,000 people.

And all of it – 39 billion gallons per year – will be drawn from Stanislaus’ aquifers.

That’s more groundwater than the 25.6 billion gallons that the county’s nine cities and unincorporated suburbs pumped during 2012, according to water agency data gathered by The Bee.

And while city residents get charged for the water they use, farmers pump groundwater for free (except for their energy and equipment costs).

None of the farmers who planted those east side trees needed the government’s permission to tap the region’s groundwater supply, and currently they can pump all the water they want without revealing how much they’re using.

While well-drilling permits are required – and Stanislaus issued more than 300 of those last year – county officials contend they are just to make sure the wells are properly constructed, but have nothing to do with regulating groundwater use.

“We have given agriculture a pass” when it comes to limiting water use, said Green, who has been advising Stanislaus officials on groundwater issues.

He said cities are required to “show me the water” before they’re allowed to approve new housing developments, but there are no such requirements for farmers who plant permanent crops dependent on groundwater.

“California has some decisions to make, and not just in the San Joaquin Valley,” Green warned. He noted how some of the state’s other agricultural regions have gotten into trouble by depleting their aquifers.

In San Luis Obispo County, Green said, an explosion of wine-grape vineyards drew down the aquifers so much that officials there recently imposed a moratorium on drilling new wells.

Water demand surprising

Some environmental groups want Stanislaus to stop new wells from going in until their impact on the aquifers can be determined. They recently filed lawsuits to force the issue.

In response to groundwater concerns, the county has appointed a 21-member Water Advisory Committee, which held its first meeting last week. It selected Wayne Zipser as chairman.

Zipser is the Stanislaus Farm Bureau’s executive director, and he’s well-versed on the growth of east side almond orchards. But even he was surprised by their cumulative demand for groundwater.

“It’s amazing when you put it into numbers,” Zipser said. After doing his own research on Green’s water use calculations, Zipser said the estimates “seem pretty close.”

“There’s a lot of development that’s gone on out on the east side, for sure,” said Zipser, noting how he, too, has grown almonds there using groundwater. “There’s a lot of good soil up there that sustains almonds really well. … But I don’t know how much more land is out there that can be planted, because (most of what is left) is steep and rocky.”

Zipser also thinks “it is way too soon to draw any conclusions” about whether those new orchards could jeopardize Stanislaus’ groundwater supply. “I farmed in the (that east side region) for over 35 years, and with new planting all around us, we never had to put in a new well because of overdraft,” Zipser said. “In fact, water levels would change depending on rain.”

But there hasn’t been much rain the past three years, and the drought has people concerned.

Frank Clark, an Oakdale Irrigation District director, has called for a moratorium on new wells, and he is upset that so many groundwater-dependent orchards have been planted.

“It just can’t be allowed to continue unabated,” Clark said. “That groundwater belongs to our entire area, not just to some individual landowners. … Water is just like the air: It’s everyone’s water.”

Groundwater issues affect “everybody and everything that uses water,” agreed Sharon Getchel, vice president of the recently formed community group called the Stanislaus Water Coalition. “A lot of our members live out here on the east side of the county, and we listen to the groundwater pumps running all night long,” Getchel said. “There is a concern, not just about the quantity of groundwater but about the quality of that water, because all our communities pump groundwater for our residents.”

She said the coalition’s goal is to gather and share all the information available about Stanislaus’ groundwater supply so the community can make informed decisions about its use.

“If we use our natural resources up, then what?” Getchel asked. “It comes down to sustainability.”

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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