Don't let the rain of the past few weeks fool you. Water remains a scarce commodity in most of California, and there will be no let-up in the creative ways people will seek to satisfy their thirst.
It is in this high-demand climate that Stanislaus County officials have initiated a discussion of whether to limit -- probably through a permit process -- the "mining" of groundwater for sale outside the county. Specifically, the county is concerned that property owners will drill wells to export our valuable resource elsewhere, with the potential to degrade the quantity and quality of water available to grow crops and orchards here.
This is a very serious and legitimate issue. There already is at least one case on the West Side of the county where groundwater is being shipped to thirsty farmland farther south.
At the request of Stanislaus County leaders, the county's Agricultural Advisory Board formed a subcommittee to study the issue. In January, the subcommittee presented a draft ordinance, which is now being circulated for comments.
The initial reactions seem to fall into several categories:
Questions and concerns about the specifics of this proposal, which is modeled on the ordinance of another county. For example, the Turlock Irrigation District includes part of Merced County, so it is understandable and acceptable that in dry years, the TID might use groundwater from Stanislaus County to supplement irrigation water in Merced County. These are legitimate questions that must be thoroughly addressed.
Opposition to additional regulations of any kind. The farmers who helped draft the ordinance share this view, which is why they want a simple but effective ordinance.
Opposition in principle to any groundwater regulations. This is an old debate, often linked to the property rights principle. But it's muddied by the fact that underground aquifers don't correspond to property lines; drilling a well on one piece of land can seriously damage the usability of another piece of property.
Opposition from existing water and irrigation districts to the county's involvement in this issue. This is the stay-off-our-turf argument. The problem is that while irrigation districts have control over the use of river and stream water within their jurisdiction, they do not have legal authority over groundwater exports. In California, counties are the entity with the authority to enact groundwater export ordinances. Some two dozen counties have them.
Skeptics who doubt there is or will be any groundwater exporting going on, and thus argue that there's no need for regulations. We believe that is a naive attitude, especially in this era when water is being sold and swapped all over the state.
The frenzy over finding new water sources will only grow with Friday's announcement that the Central Valley Project might be able to provide more water, but can only guarantee 5 percent allocations to some south county farmers.
In our opinion, the Turlock Irrigation District board of directors is taking the correct attitude and approach toward the proposed county groundwater ordinance. While they want it modified to accommodate local practices, they agree "with the county's concern about the exporting of groundwater out of the county, especially where the exporter's motivation is to sell or use the groundwater in counties many miles away."
Wayne Zipser, the executive manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and a member of the subcommittee that came up with the first draft, summed it up nicely for the TID board recently: The point is not to impose onerous new rules, he said, but, "if you leave the door open (for exports), you could see people farming water, not crops."