Options sought in Oakdale to avert water crisis

10/11/2013 6:23 PM

10/11/2013 11:24 PM

Five friends calling themselves the Eastside Groundwater Coalition will stage an open meeting Monday in Oakdale to discuss dwindling underground water.

It’s the first known response by regular people to an emerging threat of dry weather combined with a sharp increase in industrial-size wells drilled by growers of millions of new almond trees to the east.

“It’s astounding to see all the huge tractors chiseling dirt for new orchards,” said Neil Hudson, a photographer and former city planning commissioner. “It’s a new gold rush, and there are no controls (to restrict pumping).”

A notice lists presentations by retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy and Bill O’Brien, the area’s representative on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.

Kennedy for several months has issued warnings of a pending environmental disaster if things don’t change. Growers are pumping from an ancient aquifer that can’t easily be refilled, he says; he and other experts warn that soil could collapse, losing its ability to absorb and store water again.

Hudson said his friends formed “an advocacy group to challenge the mega-orchards installing high-volume wells in eastern Stanislaus County.” They want to explore ways of heading off disaster before it happens.

The county’s Board of Supervisors – O’Brien’s panel – is widely regarded as the agency mostly likely to take control.

Unlike most states, California does not regulate groundwater. Some counties have adopted rules, usually after facing crises such as the one unfolding here.

Stanislaus supervisors on Oct. 29 will consider a groundwater ordinance that would restrict exporting well water in some circumstances. The draft ordinance is a product of four years of difficult negotiations – and doesn’t begin to address much stickier questions of policing pumping.

Supervisors have batted around ideas such as forming a committee and hiring a consultant to explore options but have not taken formal steps.

“We need to determine the consequences quickly rather than taking another four years,” O’Brien said. “When you’re putting a lot of straws in the ground, logic tells you there is only so much water.”

Public and private wells throughout the eight-county San Joaquin Valley every year suck out 2 million acre-feet of water more than soaks back in through percolation, said David Zoldoske, director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno.

That’s the equivalent of Don Pedro Reservoir and its 65 billion-gallon capacity, or 69 Modesto Reservoirs, gone for good. Or for bad.

“The problem is, we can’t see it,” Zoldoske said. “If a lake went down 50 feet, people would be concerned. If it’s 50 feet under our feet, nobody notices.

“The groundwater problem is one of the least talked about and perhaps one of the most critical issues,” he concluded.

Andrew Fahlund, executive director of Stanford University’s Water in the West, compared the overdraft here to Paso Robles, where San Luis Obispo County supervisors imposed a temporary moratorium on new well permits.

Long-term solutions there include the possibility of forming a water management district that might restrict pumping and collect pump taxes or fees from landowners.

A huge fight has erupted between growers and small landowners. The first prefers a voluntary district controlled and financed by them; the second wants county leaders to set up a board of directors elected by voters.

The grower-backed structure seems similar to the rather obscure Eastside Water District, formed in 1985 and covering 54,000 acres in east Stanislaus and Merced counties, south of the Tuolumne River and east of Turlock Irrigation District boundaries. Unlike the TID and other irrigation districts, the Eastside Water District has no rights to river water and is entirely dependent on wells.

Another option for achieving groundwater peace: adjudication. That’s when lawsuits prompt a judge to settle disputes, often by appointing a water master to make sure all sides abide by rules that can be negotiated.

“Everyone fears adjudication a great deal, but there are reasons why that may not be as bad as some people think,” Fahlund said, noting 23 such arrangements in California, none in this area. “It gives people some certainty and clarity in what they can and can’t do.”

The Eastside Groundwater Coalition’s public meeting begins at 7 p.m. Monday at the Oakdale Community Center, 110 S. Second Ave. Hudson can be reached at (209) 847-0540.

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