May 26, 2014

Stanislaus water committee to review recommendations Wednesday

A moratorium on well drilling throughout Stanislaus County is not among several recommendations going before the Water Advisory Committee on Wednesday.

A moratorium on well drilling throughout Stanislaus County is not among several recommendations going before the Water Advisory Committee on Wednesday.

Its 21 members, many with financial and political stakes, will have enough trouble agreeing on less drastic steps in a controversial vision of managing groundwater, its leaders predict.

They’re bracing for rigorous debate over those less drastic steps, which include gathering closely guarded well data from extremely private, independent-minded farmers and ranchers all over the county and especially in its east and northeast stretches. That’s where millions of almond trees, largely dependent on well water, have replaced thousands of acres of rangeland in recent years – and also where officials have just about zero scientific data on aquifers.

Keith Boggs, a county assistant executive officer, called Wednesday’s convening a “watershed meeting” because it represents the culmination of 100 days of “rapid-fire” work to hammer out suggestions for the county’s Board of Supervisors to consider June 10.

Supervisor Terry Withrow, guiding the committee as one of two nonvoting members, said he expects growers to come on board because they’re aware of potential consequences if they don’t.

“They’re getting the bigger picture,” Withrow said. “The threat is out there and that’s what’s got them sitting at the table. They have so much invested that it’s too much to lose.”

Groundwater has become a big issue throughout California because of the drought and numerous scientific reports documenting overdraft of San Joaquin Valley aquifers. In the past year, several people have told The Modesto Bee that their wells have gone dry, requiring new wells costing up to $15,000 each, and they have blamed nearby agricultural wells competing for the same underground sources.

Other threats include subsidence, or earth sinking when too much water is removed, with no chance of springing up again.

Despite periodic calls for a ban on new wells until leaders come up with a way to regulate pumping, Wednesday’s proposal does not envision penalties for at least four years.

Walter Ward, the county’s water resources manager hired to lead the committee, said it’s premature to consider “the M word” – code for moratorium – because no one really knows how much is being pumped on the east side, how much groundwater remains there and how its aquifers interact with others closer to Modesto. Finding that out, through proposed data gathering rules, is at the heart of upcoming debates.

Ward’s 19-point action plan envisions tasks spread over five years. The most controversial are a groundwater yield analysis that would pinpoint unacceptable drops in groundwater levels, and public reporting of pumping practices. Those are needed before leaders can start to discuss appropriate penalties for pumping too much, Ward said.

Skirmishes over data gathering already have broken out at meetings of the committee and the Modesto Irrigation District board, with growers generally opposed to invasions of privacy because such information could be used against them in legal challenges. Some suggest information sharing should be voluntary; others might agree to public release of aggregated data, or information reflecting pump activity in areas as large as 380 square miles that can’t be pinpointed to a single user.

Ward suggests reporting areas of 1 square mile. That might not be good enough for many growers, some said at Thursday’s meeting of a technical advisory committee.

“A lot might have heartburn with such a small area,” said Francisco Canela of West Coast Grape Farming, a division of the Bronco Wine Co. “You should make it friendly to growers.”

Cooper Rossiter, whose family owns the Don Pedro Pump company in Turlock, suggested starting off with modest requests. “Once they’re part of the solution,” he said, “they might be more willing to stay a part of it.”

Canela and Rossiter belong to the full Water Advisory Committee and were observers Thursday.

Jack Bond, a civil engineer at Modesto City Hall and a member of the technical committee, was more skeptical, but for a different reason. He noted that Ward’s action plan would not yield meaningful numbers until 2018.

“You’re not giving yourselves a tool until four years from now,” Bond said. “Nice, flowery words doesn’t give you the science.”

Sarge Green of the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno, said the mere act of establishing a plan will show state leaders that Stanislaus is moving toward a goal.

“As long as we’re making progress, we are doing our job,” he said.

The committee must map every well in the county, know its size and depth, and track how much it’s pumping, Ward said.

Although that information remains a mystery, the county does track well permit applications, giving the committee a starting point. Ward released numbers showing that more than half of the applications in 2013 were on the county’s vulnerable east side.

In the first four months of 2013, the county received 20 applications for industrial-sized wells on the east side, and 19 were drilled. In the first four months of this year, the county received nearly three times as many applications – 57 – but only eight were constructed. Because permits are good for a year, the numbers suggest “sort of a panic run,” Ward said, by people worried about coming regulation who might be waiting to see what the water committee and Board of Supervisors come up with.

Withrow said other water-wary counties up and down California are keeping a close eye on Stanislaus.

“Everybody is trying to do something before the state does,” Withrow said, referring to threats from Sacramento that could include seizing control over areas in jeopardy of environmental catastrophe, if local leaders fail to take action. “They’re looking at us as kind of a model.”

Boggs acknowledged a degree of initial “posturing” when the committee formed, and said, “there is a faction that is obviously in protective mode. We’ve had to intervene with, ‘We’re in this together.’ No one has given up a seat, because the seat is valuable.”

Said Withrow, “We’re moving at the speed of light, as far as government is concerned. The traditional silos have broken down and everyone is looking at the greater good.”

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