Turlock-area groundwater the focus of forum

jholland@modbee.comApril 15, 2014 

— An overflow crowd Tuesday night heard experts talk about the need to protect groundwater in the Turlock area – and about a resident’s experience when her own well failed.

Drought and environmental restrictions on river supplies have increased demand on groundwater, speakers said at a forum sponsored by the Turlock Chamber of Commerce and California State University, Stanislaus.

More than 120 people turned out on campus for the event, which came amid one of the driest years on record and calls for tighter regulation of the underground supply.

Michael Frantz, a Turlock Irrigation District board member, said most of the area’s groundwater is in sound condition thanks to recharge, including water that seeps through farm soil. He noted a “cone of depression” where water levels have dropped in the eastern portion, but he said TID is working to fix it.

Denair-area resident Pam Vierra said the well for her home has slowed to a trickle and she expects to spend $20,000 replacing it.

“Last year, we were pumping sand,” she said. “We had no lawn. We had everything die.”

Horacio Ferriz, a geology professor at the university and an expert in groundwater flow, said reports of a widespread crisis are overblown. The aquifers refill with irrigation water that TID brings in from the Tuolumne River, he said.

Ferriz said the city of Turlock has an underground reserve equal to about 10 years of water use by residents. Not tapping it during a drought, he said, is akin to refusing to withdraw from a savings account after losing a job. “It’s there to be used,” Ferriz said. “… But let’s be cautious. We don’t have to throw it away.”

Turlock relies entirely on wells, which can be taken out of service if they do not meet health standards, said Michael Cooke, director of municipal services. The city is nearly doubling water rates over five years to cover this and other costs. They could go even higher if Turlock joins in a proposed treatment plant along the Tuolumne.

Cooke also noted that the city has reduced its total water use despite a growing population, thanks to meters and conservation rules.

Dorene D’Adamo of Turlock, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, said California’s reliance on groundwater will grow as river supplies are reduced by environmental rules and climate change. She said the state offers help to local entities trying to regulate groundwater but will take over the job in places that do not make progress.

D’Adamo also called for more monitoring of aquifer levels and quality. “You can’t protect what you don’t know,” she said.

A new advisory committee to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors is looking at possible ways to prevent groundwater overdraft. Its chairman is Wayne Zipser, executive manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.

He said Tuesday that the effort could take a cue from a farmer coalition that has reduced pesticides and other water pollutants as an alternative to direct, and more expensive, regulation by the state water board.

The same board has proposed a sharp increase in local river flows to enhance the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which critics said would force farmers to pump even more groundwater.

“Our agricultural industry is vital for our jobs and our continued success in Stanislaus County,” Zipser said.

Andrew Wigglesworth, the chamber chairman, also noted the bounty. “We must balance our short-term economic interests against the long-term need to have a sustainable water supply,” he said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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