May 23, 2014

Our Views: Lots of talk, but few answers on Stanislaus County’s water issues

For the 75 people who showed up in Oakdale on Wednesday night to hear about groundwater, there was plenty of information but no real answers.

For the 75 people who showed up in Oakdale on Wednesday night to hear about groundwater, there was plenty of information but no real answers.

They learned from Stanislaus County water resources manager Walt Ward that roughly 62,000 acres of eastern Stanislaus County land is being farmed using groundwater. Almost half of that is in almonds.

Oakdale Irrigation District manager Steve Knell noted the trend in groundwater supplies over the past 20 years has been consistently down, but not catastrophically down. He called it “a concern.” It was also noted the district is hoping to supply surface water to nearby farmers who aren’t in OID. The implication is that it would reduce groundwater pumping. He also made a case for linking management of the area’s two rivers – Stanislaus and Tuolumne – so that water, when available, could be more readily shared. A good idea.

Bryan Whitemyer, Oakdale’s city manager, pointed out that in 19 years most of the city’s wells have dropped, but not much. Water quality is of more concern than quantity.

Farm Bureau executive director Wayne Zipser talked about the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, noting its success has been based on knowledge and trust. The implication was clear; without trust, farmers will be reluctant to report actual water use to regulators, and then we’ll also lack knowledge.

Perhaps most interesting was the California Water Institute’s Sarge Green, who noted that Australia, in trying to deal with a 10-year drought from 1995 to 2005, allowed water to be sold on the open market. That was horrible for the nation’s farmers. Green also noted there are far greater opportunities for conservation in California’s cities than on the state’s farms – 2.1 million acre-feet vs. 600,000 acre-feet.

Green is advising Stanislaus County’s Water Advisory Committee, which includes Zipser and Ward. Their report to supervisors is due June 10. Hopefully, we’ll get a few more answers then.

As farmers grow ever more desperate for water, we’re seeing some troubling developments. Last week, a Merced County rancher was forced to divulge his plan to sell 23,000 acre-feet of groundwater to the Del Puerto Water District. The only way to get the water from Merced County to Del Puerto is to use the Central Valley Project’s canals, and that requires permission from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. And before that can be granted, the bureau has allow anyone against the plan to comment. Suffice to say, many in Merced County are against the plan. The sale would be worth an estimated $23 million in just two years. That Stanislaus County farmers would willingly pay that much for water to keep their trees alive is indicative of how much damage this drought is going to cause.

You’ve done so poorly, you get a raise

How would you like to be fired, and not only get your pay but raises, too? According to sayanythingblog.com, former CSU Stanislaus President Hamid Shirvani got just such a deal from the North Dakota University system. He was its chancellor until June 2013, when he was fired. But his contract not only guaranteed his pay, but raises, too. Shirvani was popular with students at CSUS. He’s probably not so popular in North Dakota now that people realize that with his pay, the raises and a severance bonus he’ll earn $1.31 million this year. And people wonder why college tuition costs are rising.

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