Stanislaus County supervisors accept groundwater recommendations, action plan

kcarlson@modbee.comJune 10, 2014 

Jardine Sunday column

Orchards on one side of the fence, cattle grazing land on the other. Almonds, grapes and other crops have been taking over the wide open spaces of eastern Stanislaus County.

JEFF JARDINE — Modesto Bee file Buy Photo

  • On the agenda

    The Board of Supervisors took the following action Tuesday:

    • Approved a “rollover” county budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The 2013-14 budget will guide spending for three months until a final spending plan is approved in September.

    • Gave approval to dissolve the Modesto Regional Fire Authority.

    • Delayed consideration of the fourth-year plan for public safety realignment. The item was rescheduled for July 1.

Stanislaus County leaders on Tuesday approved a five-year groundwater action plan that was developed by a committee dominated by agriculture interests.

The board, on a 5-0 vote, accepted the 17 recommendations of the Water Advisory Committee, none of which placed limits on new well permits or groundwater pumping for sprawling orchards on the eastern side of the county.

The county will spend roughly $880,000 in public funds to prepare water management plans and monitor groundwater levels. Supervisor Terry Withrow said the committee’s work was building a foundation for sustaining a vital resource.

Others didn’t see enough in the action plan for rural households whose wells have failed during the drought.

Sharon Getchel, a member of the Stanislaus Water Coalition, said the county should document domestic wells that have gone dry and needs to ensure groundwater is protected for future generations. “I want my grandchildren to have water to depend on,” Getchel said.

Another speaker asked why the county still was issuing agricultural well permits after three dry years. Board Chairman Jim DeMartini said he doesn’t think the county has the ability to deny well permits.

The action plan calls for exploring relief for rural households with failed domestic wells. But the main thrust is the preparation of planning documents related to groundwater. One is a countywide groundwater management plan that will incorporate other plans previously done by cities and local agencies.

Walter Ward, the county’s water resources manager, said the county also needs a water resources management plan to become eligible for grants to fund projects to sustain groundwater.

Wayne Zipser, Stanislaus Farm Bureau director and the committee’s chairman, said he expects the panel will continue meeting, with the county’s well permit process given the priority for the coming months. The committee could look at additional requirements such as flow meters on new wells.

The county’s nine cities will be asked to cooperate with land-use policies that protect recharge areas, where the soil allows surface water to infiltrate the ground and replenish aquifers. The committee recommended water-level monitoring twice a year, as well as voluntary and confidential reporting of pumping data in specific areas.

DeMartini, who was replaced by Withrow as the county’s nonvoting member on the panel soon after the committee was appointed in February, criticized the panel for not focusing more attention on orchard planting outside water districts in eastern Stanislaus County. Thousands of acres of rangeland have been converted to trees and vineyards that rely on groundwater.

Ward said the committee did not ignore the issue but addressed it with recommendations for groundwater planning.

Supervisor Bill O’Brien said one practice needs to stop – the sale of surface water outside the county that is replaced by pumping. He also suggested that cities should look for ways to capture urban runoff for replenishing groundwater.

The committee recommended a change to the county’s groundwater ordinance, replacing the term “mining” with a restriction on unsustainable groundwater extraction. But some have questioned whether the ordinance approved in October can be enforced, as written. The 21-member Water Advisory Committee has representatives from agribusiness, cities, irrigation districts and the drilling industry.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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