Our View: Regional water pact is necessary

10/26/2013 4:21 PM

10/26/2013 4:42 PM

The city of Modesto and the Modesto Irrigation District, we all know, have had some serious conflicts in the last two years over water.

Much of the dissension grew out of the major construction problems in the second phase of the water treatment plant at Modesto Reservoir – a project being overseen by the MID but ultimately paid for by the city. The construction is back on track, and the city and MID are still negotiating who pays what.

But step back from this momentary conflict and it’s obvious that the arrangement of using Tuolumne River water to supplement well water has provided Modestans a reliable source of water for household and business use. The first phase of the water treatment plant has been in use since 1994. These days, city water customers are, roughly speaking, getting half and half – half well water and half treated river water.

The MID and its other water users – the farmers – benefit from this arrangement, too, because the MID can show that it is using some of its water supply for what’s considered the highest and best use, municipal and industrial purposes. That is important when outsiders, whether the state or federal government or environmental groups, covet MID water.

The city of Turlock, on the other hand, continues to depend entirely on groundwater pumped from wells scattered around the community. For decades, there have been discussions between city leaders and the Turlock Irrigation District about Turlock also getting some of its domestic supply from the Tuolumne. But even though a site for a treatment plant was identified and purchased and some basic work started, for various reasons a water treatment plant has not been built.

The cities of Ceres and Modesto also have been part of those talks. The city partnership and the TID each bear some blame for the lack of progress, but one big factor was that Turlock leaders were reluctant to proceed because they would have had to raise water rates significantly. In hindsight, it would have been better to have raised rates than to risk not having a reliable water supply.

While Turlock isn’t on the verge of running out of water, it is increasingly concerned about vast groundwater pumping being done on the east side of the county, most of it to allow for new almond orchards.

So the city of Turlock is asking the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors to impose a moratorium on big new agriculture wells.

Others have suggested a moratorium as well, at least to buy time to assess the health of the groundwater basin and what can be done to replenish the underground aquifers. Everyone has heard the stories about the rural residents whose wells went dry because a neighbor drilled a deeper, bigger well. More precise information of the effects of drilling will appear in an upcoming study by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Meanwhile, even the possibility of a well permit moratorium might have prompted more drilling. About 200 well permits have been taken out so far in 2013, more than half of them on the east side of the county.

Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider a proposed ordinance to restrict groundwater mining and water exports. It does not address the specific issue that the city of Turlock proposes, a moratorium. As we’ve said before, it’s only a step toward some sort of groundwater regulation. Many of the people and agencies that opposed county involvement in water regulations in 2009 and 2010 now welcome the county doing something, even more than what is proposed. Most share the sentiment that it is better for the county to be involved than to have state regulators swoop in and make decisions.

As we’ve said before, we support the ordinance that goes to the board. But it is only one of what will be many steps, and we expect controversy with every one of them.

In the meantime, the TID and city of Turlock, along with Modesto and Ceres – its partners in the Stanislaus Regional Water Authority – need to hammer out an agreement so that the long-discussed surface water treatment project can finally be built. It will help assure that urban residents on the south side of the Tuolumne River, like those in Modesto on the north side, aren’t relying solely on well water.

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