Stanislaus water panel debates getting ag well data

jnsbranti@modbee.comMay 15, 2014 

Everyone knows Stanislaus County farmers are pumping lots of groundwater to irrigate their crops this season, but no one knows for sure how much they’re pumping or whether they’re overdrafting the region’s aquifers.

And, apparently, farmers aren’t too keen about revealing their information.

Stanislaus’ Water Advisory Committee is wrestling with proposals about how – and whether – to get that pumping and water level data from agricultural well owners.

“You’re going to get a lot of grief when you ask how much water they’re pumping out of the ground,” warned committee member Cooper Rossiter, whose family owns the Don Pedro Pump company in Turlock. “They’re going to push back and not give you any information.”

During a sometimes-spirited discussion Wednesday night, Rossiter joined several other members from agricultural businesses in advising the committee against asking farmers for details about their pumping practices.

“They’re afraid of big brother watching them,” Rossiter explained about farmers’ reluctance to share their records. He said the county should “push down the road” any request for pumping data. “For now, get the information we do need, which is water level data.”

That would be a significant departure from what the newly formed 21-member committee had been considering.

An early draft of its proposed county ordinance called for development of “a water use accounting system to monitor and report groundwater withdrawals from all pumping facilities.” That “could include flow meter records or pump run-time records” to determine how much groundwater gets pumped each month.

“If we can’t tell what the volume is people are pumping, then what do we gain?” asked committee member Donald Peterson, who is a member of the Oakdale City Council.

Rossiter suggested the county “guesstimate” how much water is being pumped based on which crops are being grown.

Whether such guesses will satisfy state lawmaker demands for groundwater protections is not known.

Stanislaus’ Board of Supervisors gave the committee 100 days to come up with a plan to manage the county’s groundwater resources. Its proposal is scheduled to go on the board’s June 10 agenda, but the plan’s details remain sketchy.

Groundwater has become a big issue throughout California because of the drought and numerous scientific reports documenting overdraft of San Joaquin Valley aquifers.

State officials warn that unless counties start managing their groundwater basins in a sustainable way, the state will step in and do it for them. Various proposals to regulate groundwater use are making their way through state agencies.

Since February, Stanislaus’ new water resources manager, Walt Ward, has been working with the committee and technical advisers to craft a groundwater management plan tailored to this county’s needs.

But several committee members, including Rossiter and farmer Louis Brichetto, presented an alternate groundwater monitoring proposal this week.

Their plan calls for strictly voluntary reporting of well information, including groundwater level measurements.

“The private well owner is only allowing the collection of groundwater elevation information from the owner’s well on the condition that all such information and the location of the well shall remain confidential,” their proposal states.

Such privacy provisions are key to their plan.

“Confidentiality (protections) have to be in writing,” Brichetto insisted. He said farmers need to keep their proprietary data from those who might use it against them. “Nobody is going to give up any information if they think they’re going to get sued.”

Brichetto is among about a dozen Stanislaus farmers sued by environmental groups in February concerning well drilling permits issued in the fall. That lawsuit seeks to force farmers to do environmental reviews before drilling more wells.

Like Rossiter, Brichetto said the county shouldn’t seek pumping data from farmers right now: “This is too much to ask for all at once. They’re not going to give it.”

Instead, the committee members suggested the county focus on collecting groundwater level measurements from well owners on a voluntary basis. They propose that data then be aggregated so the public wouldn’t be able to tell where wells with falling – or rising – groundwater levels are.

Their plan carves the county into five “groundwater districts,” some as large as 380 square miles.

That’s not what Ward had in mind.

His draft proposal aggregates water level data into 1-square-mile sections of the county, and he envisions getting that information into a searchable database and geographic mapping system.

“Nobody wants to collect information and not do anything with it,” Ward said. His plan is to “evaluate and determine appropriate groundwater elevation levels for groundwater use and sustainability” and to establish “mechanisms to manage pumping when critical limits are approached.”

Committee member Francisco Canela of West Coast Grape Farming, a division of the Bronco Wine Co., voiced concerns about making groundwater data so specific.

“Make it a larger area. One square mile is just too small,” Canela said. He also opposed the county asking farmers to provide “too much information at one time.”

Some members of the audience, however, offered different opinions.

“Well pumping affects everybody,” said Pam Vieira, a rural Denair homeowner who says her 126-foot well is going dry. “There are nine agricultural wells around me, and when they’re pumping, I don’t have water.”

Vieira said three new farm wells recently were drilled near her home, and she fears the groundwater her family always has relied on is being consumed by almond orchards.

“I am a senior citizen, and I can’t afford $20,000 for a new well,” Vieira told the Water Advisory Committee.

Ward said two other homeowners called him this week about their wells being depleted. “It’s useful to address this,” he said about domestic well problems. “You can’t just sweep it away under the rug.”

Ward has invited homeowners who are having trouble with their wells to phone him at (209) 525-6710.

The Water Advisory Committee’s next meeting will be at 9 a.m. May 28 in the Kirk Lindsey Center, 1020 10th St., Suite 102, Modesto.

Groundwater sustainability also will be the focus at a town hall meeting Wednesday, sponsored by a community advocacy group called the Stanislaus Water Coalition. That free public gathering will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Oakdale Community Center, 110 S. Second Ave.

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

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