Merced supervisors approve first steps of groundwater ordinance

Merced County’s proposed groundwater ordinance is one step closer to becoming law.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinance, setting a second reading and possible adoption for March 17.

The ordinance would regulate groundwater transfers out of Merced County basins through a permitting process, allowing county officials to scrutinize each water transfer individually to determine potential impacts to the county’s groundwater resources.

Under the new ordinance, drilling a new well and exporting or mining groundwater would each require a permit. Replacement wells that don’t increase water pumping activities would be exempt from the permitting process.

The ordinance also identifies other exemptions: wells delivering 2 acre-feet or less per year, groundwater recharge efforts, exporting between two contiguous properties and public water agency conservation efforts, among others.

But the exemptions aren’t automatic, said County Executive Officer Jim Brown, and applicants must prove they meet the exemption criteria. “The (ordinance) language does require them to come to Environmental Health and verify that they meet the exemption,” Brown said during the board meeting.

Existing wells that are not exporting water off their properties do not need to apply for a permit, Brown confirmed. “The permit process is designed for new wells,” he said, “but existing wells that want to export (groundwater) need to come in and apply for a permit.”

The sudden push from county leaders to regulate groundwater came after two Merced County landowners tried selling water to Stanislaus County for profit. The landowners, Steve Sloan and Steve Smith, proposed selling up to 26,000 acre-feet of groundwater to the Del Puerto Water District and the Patterson Irrigation District for two years.

Sloan and Smith are estimated to receive $500 to $1,000 per acre-foot of groundwater, fetching millions of dollars over the life of the contract.

“They’re stealing my water and making money off it,” said Ken Spagnola. The 78-year-old almond farmer was one of more than a dozen to attend Tuesday’s meeting. “They had the power to stop these guys from transferring this water and they delayed it.”

The county has been working on the ordinance for nearly a year. Meanwhile, the Sloan and Smith proposal was approved by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in July and the two landowners began transporting groundwater outside the county.

According to data obtained by the Sun-Star, the landowners already have exported more than 6,800 acre-feet of groundwater outside the county: 2,248 acre-feet in October, 2,357 acre-feet in November and 2,241 acre-feet in December.

But a water expert hired by the county said the two property owners – and others that are exporting groundwater – must apply for a permit once the new ordinance is adopted.

“Once this ordinance becomes effective, they will need a permit to continue to export,” Antonio Rossmann told the Sun-Star. “The county can’t make them put the water back – what’s gone is gone. But the county could say that contract doesn’t count because it violates county law. It would stop them from exporting until they get a permit.”

Sloan could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and Smith declined comment when reached by the Sun-Star.

The Board of Supervisors had little discussion on the ordinance before approving the first steps Tuesday. District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel said it’s because the county has been working on the ordinance for a while.

“I’m very proud of the document we’ve created,” McDaniel said after the board meeting. “I’m all about property rights, but at the same time we’re here because of the taking of groundwater and selling it outside of the county.”

If adopted by the supervisors March 17, the new ordinance would go into effect 30 days later.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @RamonaGiwargis.