Our View: Clock is ticking on groundwater plan for San Joaquin Valley

April 20, 2014 

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Officials say the buckling of concrete panels along the Delta-Mendota Canal is evidence of the land sinking because of overpumping groundwater.

ANDY ALFARO — aalfaro@modbee.com Buy Photo

Wayne Zipser wears a lot of hats. He’s the executive director of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and the chairman of the Stanislaus County Groundwater Advisory Group. He also sits on the board of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition – which covers five counties: Stanislaus, Merced, Tuolumne, Mariposa and Madera. It was established under extreme pressure from the state to clean up waterways.

Zipser not only knows farming and water, he knows something about collaboration and consensus building. So we were at least a little intrigued when he suggested the Valley’s dire groundwater situation can be addressed using some of the same tools that helped the East Side Coalition improve water quality.

“We had 25 waterways and we had problems in all 25,” Zipser told the audience of roughly 170 who overflowed a big room at California State University, Stanislaus, on Wednesday night.

“So we identified every farmer ... (and) we went out and talked about management ways to reduce pesticides” getting into those waterways, said Zipser. The coalition acted forcefully because it wanted to make certain the state wouldn’t be forced to ban or dramatically curtail pesticide use. “We wanted to keep those tools in play.”

It worked, he said, “because the farmers said, ‘We’re going to do this right.’ 

Groundwater management will, undoubtedly, be a lot trickier. The demands on the supply are enormous and there are virtually no rules. At least not yet. But if farmers want a say in how those rules are going to look, they will have to get serious about “doing this right.” And that means conditions on permits, real monitoring and guaranteeing sustainability.

They’ll also have to recognize that there are a lot of stakeholders and the overwhelming majority are not farmers. Every city in the region relies at least in part on groundwater; most rely entirely on it. Their priorities come first. It might also help to recognize that trending toward a single crop – almond trees – is not going to be helpful. It’s not oversupply of nuts that will hurt in the long run, but undersupply of water for trees.

Zipser and the 19-person committee he chairs were given roughly 100 days to come up with recommendations; about half the time is gone.

Dorene D’Adamo, who sits on the State Water Resources Board, was also at Wednesday’s forum and said the state would prefer that groundwater be kept under “local control.” But she also noted that the state will – and must – step in if local entities “don’t have the will or capacity” to adequately manage the resource. In other words, the rules established by counties and water districts must have an impact. Lip service doesn’t count.

There is no doubt the state is going to ask for more water from our rivers – a lot more. If we’re incapable of managing our groundwater effectively, there won’t be much of an argument to make against such a water grab. We must prove we’re capable of protecting groundwater if we hope to be able to protect our surface water. And right now we’re not doing it.

Residents from the Denair area spoke angrily of their wells going dry; of pumps pulling up sand; of being forced to spend $15,000 or $20,000 to drill another 100 feet to find water. City wells are being shut down due to contamination.

This is why groundwater must be managed. Listening to those who suggest there is no problem won’t get us to a solution. Those with the most to lose must “do this right.”

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