Measure I, the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative, is intended to allow Modesto’s voting population to debate and decide the wisdom of expansion over farmland. I endorse it, but for reasons concerning what is beneath that land.
Measure I contrasts with letting a few City Council members, who are under tremendous political and financial pressure, decide the long-term survival of this community. The problems with any wrong decisions might not become apparent until long after they are gone from the council.
Because of my hydrologic background, I tend to take a longer view concerning water for the city. In a recent meeting on city growth, the subject of available water was not even mentioned, yet it is absolutely fundamental to city survival.
Global warming, whatever the cause, is occurring. The amount of snow in the mountains each winter is decreasing, so there may well be much longer dry seasons with far lower and warmer flows of water in the rivers. That means surface-water treatment plants may have little, or occasionally no, surface water to treat.
There is one remaining potential source of water: groundwater. Underground aquifers have a storage capacity far exceeding existing reservoirs. Further, additional groundwater recharge can be activated much sooner and cheaper than by building additional dams. It can be our savior in future droughts.
California’s past lack of understanding and consideration of groundwater is simply inexcusable. The recently passed laws eventually requiring groundwater sustainability are an improvement, but still leave much to be desired. The public needs to understand that groundwater, which accumulated in the past tens of thousands of years, is being treated as if there is no end of it. If that continues, the Valley will simply return to being a semi-arid desert.
The general public must realize the key to our future is to plan for a changing climate that includes heavier rains (when they occur), longer and hotter summers, and more frequent periods of drought. That means every effort possible must be made to recharge groundwater, since it is our only reliable source – assuming it will be well-managed.
The most efficient way to do that is to use flooding of widespread permeable soils when water is available, summer and winter. Cities simply cannot – must not – continue to pave over those soils that best allow water to seep into the aquifers below.
If city officials succumb to the demands of those who mindlessly want to grow and grow, ignoring the fact that there are environmental limits to the population that our region can sustain, a disaster awaits. That disaster, though, won’t occur until longer after those making the decisions have left office.
The general public will make the right decisions if properly informed, but therein lies a major challenge. Who will provide unbiased information? It will have to be intelligent, educated and concerned citizens who derive no benefits from growth or from redirecting that growth to other areas.
One of the major problems that must be overcome is the discouragement of flood irrigation and the great increase in drip irrigation by farmers. Temporarily, during droughts, there is no alternative to drip irrigation. But it deprives the groundwater table of replenishment and cannot continue indefinitely without harming both the farmers and city dwellers who rely on the same groundwater during droughts. Groundwater used during droughts must be replaced.
Unfortunately, we can remove groundwater from the aquifers very quickly but it is a long, long process to replace it.
We should pass Measure I, but we also should make sure that far more information on groundwater is available to the public so they can understand the great hazards of irresponsible growth.
Vance Kennedy is a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist specializing in hydrology who has a small citrus farm in north Modesto.