State officials hear about drought damage, solutions

High-ranking state officials heard about the drought’s devastation in Stanislaus and Merced counties – and about projects that could enhance future water supplies.

They met Wednesday with local officials involved in wastewater recycling, groundwater recharge and other efforts to better manage the resource.

Karen Ross, secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Jerry Brown, said she was impressed with the regional cooperation.

“The governor says it every day: We’re all in this together,” she said.

Ross took part in the meeting at California State University, Stanislaus, with Bill Croyle, a deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, and Dorene D’Adamo of Turlock, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board.

About 20 leaders from city and county governments and water districts attended the meeting. Only the last 15 minutes were open to the media.

“We wanted to have an opportunity to have frank conversations on an array of topics,” Ross said afterward.

The drought has forced farmers to fallow 542,100 acres in the state this year, 6 percent of the total irrigated land, according to a report last month from the University of California, Davis. This includes 72,500 acres in the zone from San Joaquin through Madera counties.

We need to prepare for the extremes. It’s historically dry now, but it can also be very wet.

Bill Croyle, Department of Water Resources

Many farmers have skipped low-value annual crops so water could go to permanent fruit and nut plantings. They have responded to reduced river flows with increased groundwater pumping, which is expensive and, in some areas, can cause overdraft and land subsidence.

“It’s obvious that our growers have turned to groundwater to get through this year, and they’re concerned about groundwater replenishment and how that’s going to happen,” said David Robinson, agricultural commissioner for Merced County.

The Eastside Water District has a long-term plan for recharging the aquifer under its 60,000-plus acres in Stanislaus and Merced counties. The district relies entirely on wells, but it is seeking rights to excess surface water in ample runoff years so it can seep into the ground in a $10 million project, consultant Kevin Kauffman said.

The state officials also heard about a proposal to treat Tuolumne River water for use in Turlock, Ceres and south Modesto. The plant would reduce the cities’ use of groundwater, allowing it to recharge and serve as a backup in dry years. A similar plant operated by the Modesto Irrigation District has provided this benefit to the rest of Modesto since 1995.

The three cities in July reached an agreement with the Turlock Irrigation District for the raw water supply. They have not yet decided to go forward with the plant, which could cost $150 million to $200 million and require steep rate hikes for customers.

Officials also discussed a plan to recycle wastewater for use by farmers in the Del Puerto Water District, a 45,000-acre strip along Interstate 5 between Vernalis and Santa Nella. It got zero water this year and last from the federal Delta-Mendota Canal because of drought and fish protections.

The water for the $100 million project would come from the Modesto and Turlock sewage treatment plants – close to 60,000 acre-feet per year at buildout, or two-thirds of Del Puerto’s demand. The Turlock City Council this week approved an interim sale of up to 13,000 acre-feet a year over five years.

Croyle, who oversees emergency preparedness and security at DWR, said the department has funding for various aspects of water management.

“We need to prepare for the extremes,” he said. “It’s historically dry now, but it can also be very wet.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385