Stanislaus water committee suggests well data be voluntary

gstapley@modbee.comMay 28, 2014 

Hoping not to alienate farmers, a water committee on Wednesday softened well-data recommendations going before Stanislaus County supervisors in two weeks.

Rather than requiring that well owners provide groundwater pumping information, the Water Advisory Committee is suggesting that people volunteer key data. Also, the information must be obscured before sharing it publicly, the committee agreed.

Committee leaders congratulated the 21-member body for meeting a goal of roughing out an action plan in three months.

“People said we wouldn’t get anywhere and we’re getting somewhere,” said Terry Withrow, a county supervisor guiding the committee.

Wayne Zipser of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, the committee’s chairman, said, “We became united in trying to solve a problem.” He referred to fears of environmental catastrophe from too much pumping to counter drought and to feed millions of almond trees on the county’s northeast end.

The recommendations are not binding, meaning supervisors can change them in a final version. Four of the five supervisors are farmers.

Hydrogeologist Ray Kablanow noted that no one knows how much water is in aquifers throughout the county. “If we don’t know exactly what we have, we don’t know what we can take safely,” he said.

The county’s newly hired water resources manager, Walter Ward, had asked for stronger well-data rules, saying reliable numbers are crucial to addressing groundwater needs. Anticipating resistance from committee members, most of whom have financial or political stakes, Ward called for a compromise of monthly reports from areas of 1 square mile rather than from each well.

“This is trying to bring in a little more science and gets us a little further down the road of managing our resource,” Ward said. “If we can’t give something better to the next generation, it’s only going to be tougher for them.”

Information such as well size and depth, groundwater level and pumping capacity would help him “begin to see a mosaic of the entire picture … to help make decisions,” Ward said.

No committee member embraced that plea, and a vote to strike the square-mile reference passed unanimously.

Oakdale farmer Louis Brichetto wanted to go a step further and remove the reference to monthly pumping data, saying, “This is going to be a real hangup” with well owners.

Turlock Councilman Forrest White said, “Isn’t the whole idea to find out how much water is coming out of the ground? If we’re not going to measure it, why are we doing this?”

Brichetto agreed with a wording change from “monthly groundwater pumping” to “monthly groundwater usage.”

Some said releasing well data to the public would violate state law and Homeland Security provisions. But committee members unanimously agreed to add a recommendation of their own, essentially guaranteeing confidentiality.

The county should conform to whatever state leaders require in coming groundwater legislation, perhaps by this summer, some said.

Ward said the notion of new government panels called local groundwater management entities seems to be gaining steam in Sacramento. An LGME could form for each of California’s 118 subbasins, without respect to city or county lines, and each might report to state water officials.

A woman in the audience questioned why well owners would step forward to offer up closely guarded well data. Withrow said, “I think we’ll see a lot of volunteers because if we don’t, it will become nonvoluntary pretty soon, where they’re forced to. That’s the stick to have people volunteer.”

The committee agreed that it’s important to seek relief money, likely from state and federal sources, on behalf of residents whose wells go dry and who are forced to spend upward of $15,000 to drill new wells. Some have blamed nearby industrial-size agricultural wells sucking from the same aquifer.

Ward estimated needing $532,840 for groundwater work over the next five years. Withrow asked the committee’s four subsets – the county, its nine cities, four irrigation districts and private interests – to discuss immediately coming up with $45,000 per subset to cover costs for the first year.

Committee leaders said their twice-monthly meetings likely will be reduced, but warned that much work lies ahead as groundwater policy evolves. The next is scheduled for 9 a.m. June 25 in the Kirk Lindsey Alliance Center, 1020 10th St., Modesto.

“We’re not done, by a long shot,” Zipser said. “In fact, we’re just beginning.”

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors’ June 10 meeting will start at 9 a.m. in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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