Stanislaus County irrigation districts pumping record amounts of groundwater

The Steinegul well west of Walnut Avenue near Pleasant Valley Road pumps water into an OID canal on Friday afternoon (07-18-14) in Oakdale, CA.
The Steinegul well west of Walnut Avenue near Pleasant Valley Road pumps water into an OID canal on Friday afternoon (07-18-14) in Oakdale, CA. jlee@modbee.com

Despite widespread concerns about declining groundwater levels, some Stanislaus County irrigation districts have dramatically increased well pumping this year.

Modesto Irrigation District wells pumped 311 percent more groundwater this January through June than they did during the same months last year.

MID’s half-year total of 30,087 acre-feet of groundwater has far surpassed what it had pumped during any other full year during the last decade. Last year’s annual total, for instance, was 14,170 acre-feet.

The Oakdale Irrigation District’s wells also are being pumped at what appears to be a record-breaking pace. Pumping there was 78 percent higher during the first six months of this year compared with the same months last year.

Increased agricultural pumping is part of a statewide trend to help farmers cope with the drought by substituting groundwater for reduced rainfall and the subsequent declines in stored water supplies.

A study by University of California, Davis, researchers calculated that an additional 5 million acre-feet of the water for agriculture will be pumped out of California aquifers this year. That will increase groundwater’s share of the state’s agricultural water supply from its 31 percent average up to about 53 percent this year.

Domestic wells going dry

There’s a serious downside to pumping all that groundwater: Underground water tables are dropping and increasing numbers of shallow domestic wells are going dry.

“Someone has got to do something,” said Joseph Perez, whose well is going dry in Valley Home, a rural community near Stanislaus’ northern edge. Perez said several other homes in his neighborhood have had their wells dry up or they’re on the verge of doing so. “We need to get some action. Somebody has got to care.”

Unless something quickly changes, Perez fears he’ll have to spend $18,000 to $20,000 to drill a deeper well.

Perez turned to OID’s board of directors for help last week. OID owns several wells in Valley Home, and the district has been pumping them significantly more this year than it had previously.

“We’re pumping as much as we can to backfill our supply,” OID’s General Manager Steve Knell said about the district’s 25 irrigation wells. During the first six months of 2014, OID wells pumped 9,233 acre-feet of water, compared with 5,193 acre-feet during the same months last year.

OID typically gets more water than its farmers need from Sierra snowmelt stored in New Melones Reservoir, but the dry winter reduced runoff.

OID this year expects about 225,000 acre-feet of water from that reservoir to irrigate its district’s 57,000 acres of farmland. Knell said OID plans to pump 15,000 more acre-feet of groundwater to further boost supplies.

According to Perez and his wife, Linda, there are two OID wells within 1.5 miles of where their neighborhood’s wells are going dry. OID pumping records show those two wells pumped 812 acre-feet of water from January through June, compared with 182 acre-feet during the same months last year.

An acre-foot of water is generally about as much as four people use for domestic purposes during an entire year.

Knell told The Modesto Bee his staff would look into whether OID’s pumps are impacting Valley Home residential wells.

“If they think we’re a cause, they might be right or they may not be. Us shutting off our pumps might not do anything for them,” Knell said. “We will investigate every complaint.”

Different approaches

Shutting down wells is something the Turlock Irrigation District already has done to address concerns about falling groundwater levels in its communities.

“We turned off a lot of pumps” in areas where there were reports about domestic wells going dry, TID’s spokesman Calvin Curtin said.

TID is bucking the statewide trend this year: It pumped about 21 percent less groundwater from January through June than it had during the same months last year. Last year it pumped 53,000 acre-feet of groundwater, compared with 41,640 acre-feet this year.

“We do want to give our farmers credit for being frugal with water,” Curtin said. “Our growers are being extremely careful with what they’re using.”

And they’re not getting nearly as much water from the TID as in the past.

“They’re only going to get 20 inches (of irrigation water per acre) from us, when last year it was 34 inches,” Curtin said. Rather than try to make up for the drought by pumping more from the ground, TID cut allocations to farmers.

TID also shortened the irrigation season by one month, starting in mid-April rather than mid-March. That reduced the amount of time groundwater pumps were running because TID does not rent out its wells to farmers when they’re not being used by the district.

Both MID and OID allow farmers to rent district-owned wells, and that accounted for thousands of acre-feet of additional groundwater being pumped this year in each of those districts.

“The whole reason we have wells is to use them during dry years,” MID board President Nick Blom explained. He said his district is pumping so much groundwater because the drought reduced its surface water supplies so much. Once the drought ends, he said, MID “will go back to a normal kind of pumping.”

MID is providing farmers 24 inches of water per acre this year, which Blom said “is not a lot.” Blom said 3 to 4 inches of that allocation is coming from groundwater pumping.

MID does not have the same problems with declining water tables as other parts of Stanislaus County, according to Blom.

“I haven’t heard of any” domestic wells going dry within MID boundaries, Blom said, “but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”

Rising groundswell

There have been numerous reports of wells going dry in and around Oakdale and its neighboring Knights Ferry and Valley Home. During the first six months of this year, 19 well drilling permits for new domestic wells were issued to homeowners in those communities, compared with nine permits for all of last year.

“We’ve got to curtail OID from pumping as much water as they’ve been pumping,” said Neil Hudson, a member of Stanislaus County’s Water Advisory Committee. Hudson also heads the Stanislaus Water Coalition, a community group of mostly Oakdale area residents concerned about groundwater problems.

There’s also a personal reason Hudson cares: His Oakdale home’s water pump may soon burn out because his well’s water level is so low.

There’s increasing support among California voters for the state to take immediate action to protect California’s groundwater supplies, according to California Water Foundation opinion poll results released last week.

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed indicated the current drought has highlighted the necessity to better manage groundwater supplies for future generations, rather than allowing current users to pump as much groundwater as they need.

Among San Joaquin Valley residents surveyed, 65 percent indicated they were extremely or very concerned about farmers and other property owners drilling more and deeper wells, which takes water from their neighbors and drives up costs.

“We are depleting this resource. We are deficit-spending groundwater,” said Lester Snow, the California Water Foundation’s executive director. His nonprofit group supports current legislative efforts to provide a statewide framework to better manage and protect California’s groundwater. “The time is now to act.”

Snow said California’s old philosophy that “if you have a well you can pump as much as you want without regard for others … doesn’t work anymore.”

Related stories from Modesto Bee