Groundwater Crisis

January 11, 2014

Water battles loom as orchards boom in Stanislaus County

Stanislaus County’s farmers are taking advantage of soaring almond prices by planting more trees. But the required water, some fear, is hurting the region’s aquifers.

Stanislaus County’s bountiful farms once were nurtured mostly by canal water brought down from the Sierra by irrigation districts.

But farms are rapidly expanding beyond those districts, and they’re drilling huge wells – hundreds of them a year – to water their crops.

Here’s why: Agriculture is booming.

The almond market, specifically, has gone, well, nuts. Almonds are fetching record-high prices, and the world’s demand for them is seemingly insatiable.

“Stanislaus has seen a 60 to 65 percent increase in almond acreage the last 10 years,” said Milton O’Hare, the county’s ag commissioner.

There are more than 18 million trees producing almonds in Stanislaus, and millions of additional young trees are a year or two away from bearing nuts.

More almond trees are being planted literally every day, O’Hare said, because Stanislaus offers virtually perfect growing conditions: “We have the right climate and the right soils and, until lately, we’ve had the water.”

The county still has the groundwater if you dig deep enough, but there are growing concerns over whether those ever-expanding orchards are dangerously overdrafting the region’s aquifers.

At risk is drinking water for every Stanislaus resident, because communities throughout the county rely on groundwater.

“It’s a fact the aquifers are being drained down far faster than the water is being replaced,” said Art de Werk, Ceres’ acting city manager. “This is a critical issue. Water is the battle of the future.”

Stanislaus’ city dwellers slashed their water use by more than 28 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to groundwater pumping data collected by The Modesto Bee from communities throughout the county.

At the same time, agricultural pumping is believed to have increased dramatically. There’s no way to tell for sure because farmers are not required to report how much they pump.

What is known is that the county issued about 300 new well drilling permits in 2013, and most of those were for large irrigation systems that can pump thousands of gallons of groundwater per minute.

Meanwhile, numerous shallow domestic wells went dry last year as groundwater levels declined. And there are fears that worse is to come if this drought continues.

De Werk said he expects the Ceres City Council on Jan. 27 to consider proposing a countywide halt to drilling of new agricultural wells. “A moratorium on well drilling outside of cities has to be seriously considered,” he said. “It would give everybody a breather.”

Turlock has called for a drilling moratorium, and two environmentalist lawyers are threatening to sue the county if it doesn’t start requiring environmental reviews before authorizing more wells.

But halting drilling could have serious financial implications for farmers and the county’s overall economy.

With Stanislaus still struggling to escape a six-year recession, all those new almond orchards are creating much-needed jobs and boosting land values. “People who never step foot in an orchard are benefiting,” O’Hare explained. “There’s a huge ripple effect related to farming.”

From the crews who drill the wells, plant the trees and harvest the almonds to the folks who sell agricultural chemicals, repair farm machinery, transport nuts to market, finance land deals and do the accounting, O’Hare said, many Stanislaus workers end up getting a taste of those almond profits.

Agricultural real estate values also are soaring because of almonds. “It’s phenomenal. We’re talking about 20 percent increases in orchard values in less than one year,” said Randy Edwards, an agricultural land appraiser and president of Edwards, Lien & Toso Inc. of Hilmar. “Spring 2013, that’s when things went crazy.”

Edwards said dry pastures outside Oakdale, Waterford and Denair have started selling for $10,000 an acre, compared with $5,000 to $7,000 a couple of years ago.

Conversion from dry pastures to well-irrigated almond orchards “is almost a daily occurrence,” Edwards said. “The only thing slowing it down is the nurseries not being able to grow trees fast enough (to meet farmers’ demand).”

Hickman’s Dave Wilson Nursery told The Bee last summer that it had commitments to sell nearly 5 million almond trees in 2014, which was as many as it could produce. Hughson’s Duarte Nursery predicted it would sell 2.5 million to 2.6 million almond trees, and Oakdale’s Burchell Nursery expected to sell more than 1 million.

O’Hare said Stanislaus farmers both are converting land that had been planted with row crops (such as tomatoes and beans) into orchards and turning dry pastures into well-irrigated orchards. “A lot of our best ag land has been paved over, so they’ve been forced to move out to the margins,” said O’Hare, explaining why orchards are expanding into areas outside the irrigation districts.

Orchards that get water from irrigation districts are more valuable than those that must rely on well water, Edwards said. Well-irrigated orchards sell for $18,000 to $26,000 per acre, while orchards served by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts sell for $20,000 to $30,000.

Edwards said almond orchards will continue to expand “until the economics change.”

A well-drilling moratorium also could change things.

What should be done to preserve Stanislaus’ aquifers will be the focus of the county’s new 21-member Water Advisory Committee. Applications for that panel must be submitted by Jan. 24 to the Board of Supervisors.

“We’ve gotten 20 or so applications so far, but we’re expecting a lot more, judging by the calls we’ve gotten,” said Christine Ferraro Tallman, clerk of the board.

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