Cooperation urged over Valley groundwater loss

11/18/2013 6:11 PM

10/20/2014 1:59 PM

Don’t wait for groundwater to go so low that a judge or state officials feel compelled to step in and take over.

That message, in so many words, came through loud and clear from expert after expert at Monday’s packed forum addressing the Central Valley’s emerging crisis.

“The writing is on the wall in Sacramento,” said Greg Zlotnick of the Association of California Water Agencies, predicting groundwater legislation early next year at the Capitol.

“We know the Legislature in general doesn’t like letting a good crisis go to waste,” he continued. “Constructive engagement is probably the best strategy rather than saying, ‘Go away; leave us alone.’ They’ll say, ‘We left you alone long enough.’”

Message received, said several leaders from Stanislaus County, in separate interviews.

“It’s not going to be fun,” said county Supervisor Terry Withrow, predicting difficulty herding farmers, government officials and water managers toward solutions affecting water rights. “But it’s what we’ve got to do, or it’s going to be done for us. I’d much rather have us do it.”

Nearly 300 people, most with some stake in pumping of well water, converged Monday for the first forum hosted by the American Ground Water Trust in the San Joaquin Valley, where groundwater depletion is getting scary.

“We’re cruising for a bruising,” said Andrew Stone, executive director of the trust, based in New Hampshire. Worldwide, people pump about 20 percent more water each year than goes back in the ground from rain and flood irrigation, he said.

Dick Moss, a Visalia consultant, predicted more lawsuits blocking housing based on state environmental law. People increasingly will challenge whether proposed subdivisions have reliable water sources based on dwindling groundwater, he said.

Mark Larsen, general manager of the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District, cited some scary newspaper headlines, including one from The Bee.

“These are headlines we hate to hear, but we know they reflect the realities of what’s going on,” Larsen said.

Drought combined with increased farm pumping has dried up some families’ wells in Stanislaus County, mostly in the Denair area. Monday’s crowd learned that other regions have it much worse, in places such as Kansas, Texas and, closer to home, parts of the San Joaquin Valley south of Merced.

Experts presented science-based solutions ranging from storing water underground in wet years to forming water-management agencies. They echoed Zlotnick’s message about dropping grudges and coming together to fix problems.

“It’s not just the south Valley against the north Valley, or the Valley against the Delta, or ag versus municipal,” said Modesto Irrigation District board member-elect Jake Wenger of Monday’s presentations. “It’s, ‘We’ve got a problem; what are we going to do about it?’”

He and Michael Frantz, chairman of the Turlock Irrigation District board, said Monday’s packed crowd is evidence that people are attuned to pending catastrophe.

“Sometimes it’s neighbors who are most knowledgeable and best situated to solve problems,” Frantz said.

They carpooled with Withrow and Turlock’s Dee Dee D’Adamo, who helps to enforce state rules as a member of the California Water Resources Control Board and who said she attended “to listen and learn.” In an interview, she agreed that the forum’s undercurrent was that “locals really need to consider getting in the driver’s seat and dealing with the issues themselves. From a state perspective, that’s really what we want to see.”

Cooperation is more important than having good lawyers, said Burke Griggs, assistant attorney general of Kansas and a Stanford University consulting professor. “What you really need is an understanding of the political culture,” he said.

Getting sound data is another key, local leaders stressed.

Withrow said he intends to share a wealth of studies presented Monday with technical advisers to a volunteer water advisory committee that could be established in coming weeks by county supervisors. Satellite data and other measurements from thousands of wells are being crunched by the U.S. Geological Survey in a 10-year study that should become public in coming months.

On Thursday, the same agency will release a study showing subsidence near the borders of Merced and Madera counties. That condition – in which soil deprived of water collapses and the ground sinks – can ruin dams and aqueducts and flood schools, dairies and maybe Dos Palos, said Chase Hurley, manager of the San Luis Canal Co. in Los Banos.

“I want to see more solid science, to get away from ideology driving crazy choices in California,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a former Fresno mayor.

Dave Orth, a Fresno water manager, said, “I’ve got bruises and scars from discussions with some electeds in water districts in the Valley.” But Monday’s large audience, he said, “gives me hope and encouragement” that people will come up with winning formulas.

“This is great stuff,” Withrow said of the forum. “We’ll use it to develop policy based on good data.”

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