Stanislaus County supervisors unanimously approved a long-awaited groundwater ordinance Tuesday and said they need to move faster on regulations to address overdrafting in the eastern portion of the county.
County leaders called the seven-page ordinance a historic starting point for regulating a water resource that has been pushed to the top of the government agenda this year. Work on more regulations is expected to start soon because of concerns about wells going dry east of Oakdale and Turlock.
“What this boils down to is a shortage of surface water,” said board Chairman Vito Chiesa. He noted that the relicensing of Don Pedro Dam and a state effort to restore salmon in the Tuolumne River are certain to take surface water away from irrigation districts, thereby increasing demand for groundwater pumping.
Chiesa promised that representatives from local government, water districts, farming, business and other interests will be brought to the table to work on more solutions.
The ordinance approved Tuesday does not specifically address overdrafting in eastern Stanislaus County, which is believed to be caused by irrigation pumping on former pasture land that’s been converted to nut orchards and vineyards.
Scheduled to go into effect in mid-December, the rules are intended to restrict out-of-county transfer of groundwater or pumping to replace surface water sold to buyers outside the county. Another purpose is regulation of water “mining,” defined broadly as wasteful or unreasonable use of groundwater.
County officials started work on an ordinance four years ago in response to West Side farmers who transferred groundwater to irrigate their trees in western Fresno County. Resistance from irrigation districts and farm groups convinced the county to scrap early drafts of the ordinance.
Sarge Green, a scientist for the California Water Institute, later was brought in to moderate talks with interested groups, resulting in an ordinance granting numerous exemptions for the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts.
Retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy of Modesto urged county leaders Tuesday to use their authority to address harmful groundwater pumping. “You have the police power to stop abuses. Please use that power,” Kennedy said.
Attorney Jennifer Spaletta, representing the Franzia family and West Coast Grape Farming, countered that the ordinance, as written, is unconstitutional under California law. In particular, the language defining groundwater mining is unclear, and more specifics are needed to outline who needs to apply for pumping permits, she said. Spaletta said it wasn’t clear whether permits are required for new wells or current pumping. County officials said changes can be made to the ordinance if needed.
Supervisors also heard from well driller Sean Roddy, who suggested a cycle of dry weather had caused the recent drop in groundwater levels in certain areas. The major investment in orchards and vineyards in the eastern foothills was a positive for the county, he said. “It’s taken land that’s worth nothing and turned it into something with long-term value.”
Supervisor Bill O’Brien, who represents the Oakdale area, said the county can’t wait another four years to address depleted groundwater. Supervisor Terry Withrow suggested the county start meeting again with the stakeholders group that worked on the ordinance.
Tuesday’s action also directed staff to form a Water Advisory Committee and created a water manager position to advise the county Department of Environmental Resources, which will enforce the ordinance and review permit applications.
Jami Aggers, director of county environmental resources, said the ordinance has no grandfathering clause, so current pumping systems in the unincorporated area could require a permit. The department has authority to look at current operations that meet the definition of groundwater mining, she said.
Staff also will take a closer look when people come in for permits to construct large agricultural wells. “Just the fact you’re drilling a well does not mean you will need to make a permit application, but you will if it’s combined with a pipeline to Merced County,” Aggers said.
Small domestic wells won’t fall under the ordinance; it exempts any well producing 100 gallons per minute or less.