Opinion Columns & Blogs

February 2, 2014

Dick Hagerty: Stanislaus County water committee will talk, talk and talk

When I heard that Stanislaus County would establish a Water Advisory Committee, I had a brief, a very brief, moment when I considered making application.

When I heard that Stanislaus County would establish a Water Advisory Committee, I had a brief, a very brief, moment when I considered making application.

I have written several columns on the subject. In fact, after the last column ran I was strongly urged to attend a small meeting of interested folks (that should read “large farm interests who have been recently drilling lots of holes in the ground”) and listen to why my comments were not in line with theirs.

Thus, having been a small irrigator for 24 years, depending on domestic wells for the past 40 years and also having deep roots in the local agricultural scene, I thought that I could add another dimension and a strong opinion on the subject.

Fortunately, sanity overcame my brief pondering moment and I decided not to apply.

Some years back, I served on two such advisory committees. One was investigating poverty in the Valley after a series of articles published in The Modesto Bee and the other was the Blue Ribbon Committee on the Prevailing Wage Policy of the City of Modesto.

Drawing from both of those experiences I fear that a conference table full of disparate interests will wrangle, wrestle, obfuscate and in the end come to no practical solutions to this deepening problem in our county.

The prevailing wage committee was particularly frustrating. We were evenly divided between five union representatives and five of us from the non-union side. And, predictably, in the end after a year of hearings, discussions, debates and arm-twisting we split 5 to 5 on the final answer. The only unanimous opinion we gave was that we could not agree on a final answer.

Bear in mind that we had only one simple question to answer – is the policy working? Yes or no?

The water committee is facing a much more complex topic and precise answers will be elusive at best. More likely, no definitive answer will be achieved after the final tally. Those who are expecting a clear and final solution will be deeply disappointed.

Thus our best hopes are that the dialogue will be thorough, balanced, open to the public and well reported in the media.

Also, we can hope that the conflicting opinions of the so-called water experts can be properly viewed and that resolution can be achieved in areas of conflict and disagreement. (From many years of experience in the development world, I know too well how the experts disagree on such vital topics as percolation, absorption and soil compaction by application of water.)

As a simple example of that comment, I tried to convince a planning forum that extensive landscaping would not waste water. Rather, the irrigation water would percolate into the groundwater table. Immediately an “expert” came forward and declared that more than 85 percent of the water applied would aspirate into the plantings or simply wick up and evaporate out of the surface soils. Recent other “experts” would have you believe that water applied in irrigation will nurture the crops and all the rest will rush right down to the water table.

Answers to critical questions and implementation of those answers will be difficult. The committee is charged only with reporting to the Board of Supervisors and has no underlying powers. Only the weight of public opinion will prevail.

We can hope that the public will be well advised of all aspects of these critical hearings.

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