September 21, 2013

OUR VIEW: Stanislaus County needs to pass groundwater ordinance quickly.

Water does not stand still. It flows, it seeps and if stagnant for long, it evaporates.

Water does not stand still. It flows, it seeps and if stagnant for long, it evaporates.

The concerns about groundwater in Stanislaus County have not evaporated, but they have shifted significantly in the four years since county officials first asked their Agriculture Advisory Committee to draft an ordinance to prohibit selling groundwater, aka well water, outside the county.

When the groundwater ordinance was first discussed, we were a county of haves and have-nots. Farmers on the east side, most served by the Oakdale, Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, had nearly all the water they wanted, courtesy of good snowpacks and flows in the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers.

West side farmers were the thirsty ones, because they were only getting a fraction of their allotments from state and federal water projects. And there was concern that some farmers were shipping groundwater from here to parcels they owned farther south in the valley. West side farmers were paying high prices for water and the possibility of exporting water for cash seemed very real.

Two years ago, the idea of a county groundwater ordinance got renewed attention because the Modesto Irrigation District was considering selling water to San Francisco, prompting some to speculate that MID start heavy pumping of groundwater to serve farmers. The MID scrapped that sale, although the issue is not dead.

These days, the urgent issue driving the deliberations about a county groundwater ordinance is the multiple deep wells that have been drilled to irrigate thousands of acres on the east side of the county.

The groundwater ordinance is finally expected to go to the Board of Supervisors late next month. By now, we think it is clear that the county has a role in monitoring and regulating groundwater supplies.

The proposed ordinance has been watered down to please former detractors. It exempts irrigation districts, cities and other water agencies. And it will grandfather in some of the water transfers between parcels. Bottom line, it will do little to solve the current issue.

What it will do is open the door for future regulation of groundwater pumping. Today in Stanislaus County, property owners need a permit to drill a well, which then will be inspected. That’s it.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini suggests the county needs to go after out-of-control pumping that is 1) causing other people’s wells to go dry or to have seriously limited supply and 2) tapping into the ancient aquifer that can never be replenished.

The decline in the groundwater level in much of the county is not in dispute. The graphic we’ve printed here is taken from a presentation by the Turlock Groundwater Basin Association to the Ag Advisory Committee earlier this month. As it shows, east of the city of Turlock, the groundwater level is far below what it was 50 years ago.

There’s a Modesto Groundwater Basin Association, too, and its situation is much the same. As we reported earlier this week, the Modesto Irrigation District and its basin partners expect to have by this time next year a 3D computer mapping model to predict what would happen with certain scenarios. It will be a useful way to estimate the impact of decisions but, as the MID’s water guru Walt Ward points out, it won’t make the hard decisions.

MID director Larry Byrd is on a crusade to warn about the impact of vast groundwater pumping for the new orchards on the east side. He said he hears concerns from new and longtime farmers. These anecdotal examples are persuasive, but we think that if the property owners are really concerned, they should voluntarily share information about how much they are pumping, when and from what depths. Testing also should be done to determine if the water is from the ancient, confined aquifers that can never be replenished or from areas underground that can be recharged through flood irrigation or pumping water down into the aquifer. The water agencies should put together a survey and ask for information that will help document what is occurring.

DeMartini, a successful farmer on the west side, says the county is 10 years behind where it should be in regulating groundwater. He puts forth what some would consider a radical idea – that the county should move to prohibit property owners outside of irrigation districts from converting nonirrigated rangeland to permanent crops such as almonds that require regular irrigation and therefore groundwater pumping.

Four years ago, the idea of a county groundwater ordinance was controversial. Today it is nothing less than a responsibility. Even with such an ordinance, we should expect 1. the state will at some point intervene and 2. lawsuits filed by residents, including farmers, whose wells run dry because a neighbor has drilled deep industrial-sized wells nearby.

It might seem like there is no end to the export possibilities for almonds, the rising star in our great agriculture industry. But it is clear we do not have an infinite supply of groundwater.

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