Neil Hudson: Managing our groundwater topic for big meeting

May 19, 2014 

Climate change seems to be moving faster than our government can respond. At the federal level, at least, little has been done to curb greenhouse gases, head off rising sea levels or address building standards in tornado regions.

However, at the local level, our county is responding to the need to monitor and preserve our surface and underground water resources so we have a sustainable supply for the future. Also at the local level, citizens have been able to voice their concerns to government officials, whether they fear the effects of recent plantings of large orchards or their residential wells running dry. Officials are listening.

Last October, a public forum of more than 300 attendees in Oakdale addressed the topic of the rapid conversion of the dry grazing lands of eastern Stanislaus County into more than 30,000 acres of orchards and vineyards – most watered with groundwater pumped from below. County and local officials offered their views on what effect the increasing pumping might have on the level of our aquifer.

Since that meeting (possibly the largest gathering ever on the topic in our county), our state has endured a third dry season and declared statewide drought.

This intersection of the large-scale orchard planting and drilling deep wells, coupled with another dry winter, encouraged the county Board of Supervisors to appoint Walt Ward to lead a Water Advisory Committee to develop a water management plan and to submit it to the board in 100 days. A big task it has been, since most plans take years to develop.

The plan needs to balance the needs of farmers, industry, cities and rural residents. The plan is due to be submitted in early June for consideration by the supervisors. It appears to be on schedule. The plan won’t be implemented all at once, but in phases.

Nearby San Joaquin County, faced with depleted basins and saltwater incursion into the Delta, has had an integrated management plan for 40 years. Our county, blessed with a basin charged by both the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers and managed by three longstanding irrigation districts, MID, TID and OID, has not seen a need for such regulation. Counties farther south – including Merced – are experiencing seriously decreasing groundwater levels and, in places, land subsidence.

We shouldn’t be complacent. Our water abundance might soon be threatened by warmer winters with less snow, longer and warmer summers, and increasing demands by agriculture and population growth. All citizens will need to watch the implementation of our integrated water management plan as it unfolds.

Integrated means two things: representation from the cities, irrigation districts, farmers and the citizens to integrate their needs and also integrating both surface supplies and groundwater. It must address water quality, supply, pollution and flood protection.

There is a second public forum at 6:30 tonight at Oakdale Community Center, 110 S. Second Street. Speakers include Ward, county water resource manager and director of the Water Advisory Committee; Wayne Zipser, WAC chairman; Sarge Green, director of the California Water Institute in Fresno; Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District; and Bryan Whitemyer, Oakdale city manager.

Hudson is a member of the Water Advisory Committee and president of the Stanislaus Water Coalition.

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