May 22, 2014

Oakdale meeting addresses Stanislaus groundwater concerns

What’s being done to address Stanislaus County’s groundwater concerns was explained Wednesday night during a public forum at the Oakdale community center.

What’s being done to address Stanislaus County’s groundwater concerns was explained Wednesday night during a public forum.

About 75 community members listened attentively as water experts detailed how well drilling is increasing, water levels are dropping and the drought is raising awareness.

“Even if we do get a rainy winter, this groundwater issue will not go away,” warned Walt Ward, the county’s recently hired water resources manager.

“We all know we live in a semi-arid climate” that gets an average of only 12 inches of rain per year, Ward told the crowd at the Oakdale community center. “Drought isn’t new to us.”

But three years of unusually dry winters have hurt the region’s groundwater reserves.

A series of charts was shared showing how water levels in numerous Oakdale-area wells have changed over the decades.

“Since 1940, do you see any upticks in these wells? No,” said Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell, answering his own question. “It’s a time for concern.”

Knell noted that in some wells, the water levels have been dropping an average of 1.5 feet per year. And since 2011, there have been OID wells “showing significant drops.”

To prevent further aquifer overdraft, Knell said, either water extractions will need to be reduced, groundwater recharge will have to increase, or both.

To help in that effort, OID last year agreed to start providing surplus water – when available – to 7,000 acres of orchards owned by the Trinitas corporation in eastern Stanislaus. Without that surface water, those trees are totally dependent on groundwater.

Knell said OID also is studying options for expanding water service into the Paulsell Valley in eastern Stanislaus. And it is looking into providing drinking water to Oakdale, Riverbank and northern Modesto, which could replace or augment the well water those cities now pump.

There’s a whole lot more pumping going on now than there used to be in the county.

Ward displayed graphs showing the soaring number of well drilling permits issued in Stanislaus.

So many people want new water wells that “the well drillers can’t keep up,” said Ward, who’s been told there’s a yearlong wait for drilling.

Most of the new wells are in eastern and northeastern Stanislaus, in areas not served by any irrigation district.

That area used to be primarily nonirrigated open range and pasture land, but Ward said well water now is used to irrigate 30,000 acres of almond trees, 6,000 acres of walnut trees and 3,300 acres of grapes – with more being planted.

“There’s not a whole lot we know about this region” because the privately owned wells there are not monitored by any government agency, Ward explained. But he said private hydrologists have told him that because of that land’s geology, the wells there have “no hydraulic connection” to the aquifers and wells elsewhere in the county.

Proposals for how to gather information about that region’s wells and aquifers will be made as part of “a suite of recommendations” being prepared by Stanislaus’ recently appointed Water Advisory Committee. Those proposals will be discussed by that committee Wednesday, then brought to the June 10 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Wednesday’s presentation by numerous speakers lasted more than two hours, and the crowd was not allowed to ask questions until the end. Few questions ended up being asked.

One community member, however, asked, “Why hasn’t there been more discussion about (well drilling) moratoriums?”

That triggered a smattering of applause from the dwindling audience.

Ward said county officials don’t want to “overreact” to the situation, and he noted that more information needs to be gathered before taking such action.

Getting that data requires farmers to cooperate. But Ward said there are attorneys – whom he likened to “circling buzzards” – who have landowners concerned. So they’re reluctant to provide information that could end up being used against them in a legal action.

A recent well-drilling moratorium in San Luis Obispo also resulted in lawsuits, which were filed by landowners claiming their personal property rights were being violated.

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