Interpreting the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee’s action plan

gstapley@modbee.comMay 31, 2014 

    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government

The idea of telling people how much well water they may pump can really annoy growers, who never have had to account for their use of that resource throughout most of California.

Almost all other states consider groundwater a shared resource. Here, it’s always belonged to whoever owns the land above it, although it flows underground without respect to property lines.

Two main factors have converged to suggest a change is in order: a three-year drought and an exponential surge of nut farming that’s almost entirely dependent on well water. Some experts fear that vast swaths of land, particularly on Stanislaus County’s hilly east edge, could be laid to waste if too much is pumped, causing the earth to collapse. A more immediate threat is industrial-size agricultural wells drying up neighbors’ wells.

Knowing that state leaders could wrest control from locals who refuse to act, county supervisors formed a 21-member Water Advisory Committee and gave it 100 days to recommend a course of action for creating groundwater policy. Most members have financial or political stakes but met regularly to hammer out the 17 suggestions they approved Wednesday.

Almost all last-minute changes weakened what Walter Ward, the county’s water resources manager, had proposed. He said reliable scientific data is crucial to forming good policy, but committee members feared alienating well owners.

In addition to the 17 elements, the committee issued two broad recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors, whose five members – two are full-time growers, and two farm part time – could make more changes on June 10:

• Approve the action plan, as listed below.

• Revise the county’s groundwater ordinance adopted in October. This would change the negative emphasis from banning the mining of groundwater, or “unsustainable groundwater extraction,” to a positive approach for achieving “sustainable groundwater management.” The idea is to conform better with language used in pending state legislation.

The action plan, which includes a timeline for accomplishing tasks and cost estimates, is heavy on technical jargon. What follows is a Modesto Bee interpretation, with brief explanations on final committee revisions.

Ward broke down the action plan into five categories. If supervisors agree, they would authorize Ward and consultants to:


G-1 – Develop a groundwater management plan.

Because cities and irrigation districts already have such plans, Ward wanted this item to focus on the county’s northeast end, which is not served by those agencies and about which little is known. It’s also where millions of thirsty almond trees, mostly fed by wells, have replaced rangeland that used little groundwater.

Tom Smith of E.&J. Gallo Winery argued that the plan should encompass the entire county plus “related subbasins” stretching into San Joaquin and Merced counties, reflecting the fact that aquifers don’t acknowledge political lines. The committee majority sided with Smith.

G-2 – Change planning documents of the county and its nine cities to protect groundwater recharge areas, or land with soil that allows irrigation water to easily seep down and replenish aquifers.

Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki wanted a wording change to allow mitigation, meaning such land could be sacrificed to development if officials make up for the loss in some other way yet to be defined. Also, Ward’s time line showed this task being delayed three years, and political consultant Mike Lynch suggested tackling it right away.

A couple of committee members voted “no,” but the majority agreed with the changes.

G3 – Evaluate existing Integrated Regional Water Management Plans to see how they address groundwater. This could help position the local effort for state or federal grants.

G-4 – Research alternate strategies, including the concept of creating Local Groundwater Management Entities. That notion seems to be getting traction with the governor’s office.

G-5 – Integrate various water plans developed by agencies on all levels into a comprehensive document.


E-1 – Revise the groundwater mining ordinance.

E-2 – Establish a mechanism to manage groundwater resources.

Ward had suggested that penalties could be developed for overpumping in areas subject to the groundwater ordinance, but others objected. A vote to remove the pumping reference drew more “no” votes than any other – six – but they were outvoted by 12 others.


F-1 – Find relief money for people whose home wells have gone dry.

F-2 – Look for state water bond money that could help pay for the tasks in this action plan.


T-1 and 2 – Gather data from various agencies to identify opportunities for replenishing aquifers, and assemble data on failed wells to help find relief money.

Ward had proposed two separate tasks, but the committee decided to combine them.

T-3 – Analyze groundwater levels over many years and decide how much fluctuation is acceptable.


M-1 – Identify well locations on maps while protecting confidentiality.

M-2 – Develop a database to store well information.

M-3 – Enhance the county’s well permit process to gather more meaningful groundwater data.

Well driller Sean Roddy said the county is missing the boat by requiring permits to drill wells but not to install pumps.

M-4 – Gather data from public agencies and well owners who would volunteer information on groundwater levels.

M-5 – Develop an accounting system to monitor monthly groundwater use.

This by far was the action plan’s most controversial issue.

Knowing that well owners would object to reports on individual wells, Ward proposed a compromise of monitoring data in 1-square-mile areas. Grower Louis Brichetto suggested expanding to “township” parameters of 36 square miles. Gallo’s Smith suggested eliminating any reference to land size. Ward took a stand, saying more accurate scientific data would result in a much better product and allow for more sound decisions. But the committee unanimously agreed to disregard land size.

Brichetto wanted to eliminate monthly data, predicting pushback from well owners, but Ward questioned the value of data that reveal little about how much water is actually pumped. Sarge Green, of Fresno State’s Center for Irrigation Technology, suggested changing “monthly groundwater pumping” to “monthly groundwater usage.” Brichetto backed down and the committee unanimously agreed.

M-6 – Guarantee confidentiality.

Suggested by Smith, this was the action plan’s only element produced at the last moment.

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to review committee recommendations at 9 a.m. June 10 in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

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

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