August 14, 2014

Well owners may be required to reveal how much they’re pumping

Stanislaus County officials are considering rewriting the county’s groundwater ordinance to require that all well owners reveal how much they’re pumping and how far their wells’ water levels have fallen.

Stanislaus County officials are considering rewriting the county’s groundwater ordinance to require that all well owners reveal how much they’re pumping and how far their wells’ water levels have fallen.

Periodic “groundwater extraction statements” are being proposed for everyone who pumps water from Stanislaus aquifers, County Counsel Jack Doering told the Water Advisory Committee on Wednesday night.

The proposal is for the county to collect “water level and pumping data” that would be used “to develop effective sustainable groundwater management plans and policies.”

Small domestic wells likely would be exempt from the requirement, but big, privately owned agricultural wells would have to comply.

Such a requirement would be a big switch for Stanislaus well owners, who have been able to pump as much groundwater as they want without telling anyone what they’re pulling from the basin.

It also would be a big change from what the Water Advisory Committee proposed this spring, which was to make reporting voluntary. The committee’s agricultural representatives previously had balked at mandating well level and pumping reports.

But Doering stressed that the county will have to revise its groundwater ordinance to get in sync with pending California legislation, which is expected to force local agencies to take actions that stop overdraft.

The proposed Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is making its way through the state Legislature and is expected to be supported by Gov. Jerry Brown. That act, sponsored by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would require that groundwater resources be managed sustainably.

That would mean overdraft of Stanislaus’ four groundwater basins would have to stop, and the proposed law sets up a timeline for making that happen.

The act would allow locally controlled groundwater sustainability agencies to decide how to protect their aquifers, but it would enable state officials to intervene if local leaders don’t make progress.

To ensure Stanislaus has the information it needs to properly manage its basins, well owners must be required to report how much water they’re pumping, county Supervisor Terry Withrow said.

“We’re going to have to get that … to keep the state happy,” explained Withrow, who has been working with the Water Advisory Committee. While farmers initially objected to providing such information to the government, Withrow said, “They see now that all this is coming down from the state. So now we’re getting good cooperation from (farmers).”

Key to that cooperation will be keeping collected water level and pumping records confidential. Stanislaus’ proposed groundwater ordinance states that data gathered “shall be deemed proprietary information that is not subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act.”

Withrow said county officials also are working to gain cooperation from local agencies that pump groundwater, including irrigation districts and cities.

“We have to break down the mentality where everybody is looking out for themselves … and not looking out for the greater good of the region,” Withrow said. “We have to have enough water for our entire county.”

The dangers posed by overpumping of Stanislaus’ groundwater basins have become clear during this third year of drought. An increasing number of shallow domestic wells across the county – particularly near Denair, Waterford and Valley Home – have gone dry.

Meanwhile, a record number of drilling permits for new large agricultural wells have been issued.

The proposed state law recognizes the use of groundwater as an important property right, but it notes that groundwater is a limited resource that landowners must share with their neighbors.

Stanislaus’ proposed ordinance would protect the county from “unsustainable groundwater extraction.”

It states that sustainable groundwater management should “provide for multiple long-term benefits without resulting in or aggravating conditions that cause significant economic, social or environmental impacts, such as long-term overdraft, land subsidence, ecosystem degradation, depletions from surface water bodies, and water quality degradation, in order to protect groundwater resources for future generations.”

When that draft ordinance will be considered for adoption by the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors has not been announced.

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