Well-drilling moratorium sought by some Stanislaus supervisors

An immediate well-drilling moratorium is being called for by at least two members of Stanislaus County’s Board of Supervisors, and the Water Advisory Committee will debate whether that’s needed to protect declining groundwater supplies.

“It’s irresponsible not to address this,” Supervisor Jim DeMartini insisted Wednesday. “There’s ample evidence of serious groundwater overdraft.”

DeMartini said he will propose on Tuesday halting new well drilling permits for land in eastern Stanislaus that’s outside an irrigation district.

“I heard this week that there are more rangeland conversions in the works out there,” DeMartini told The Bee. “We should have stopped this years ago.”

More than 30,000 acres of what had been nonirrigated grazing land in eastern Stanislaus were planted with permanent crops – primarily almond orchards – from 2001 to early 2013, and that cultivation has continued.

De Martini said the problem is that those new crops depend on groundwater pumping. That’s depleting the county’s aquifers, he said, and he blamed it for domestic wells going dry in Denair, Turlock, Waterford, Valley Home and Oakdale.

“The least we can do is stop the conversion of any more rangeland into crops outside the irrigation districts,” DeMartini insisted. “Why let the problem get any worse? We’ve got to try to protect the public good.”

Supervisor Dick Monteith wants to go further by putting a moratorium on well-drilling permits throughout Stanislaus.

“We know we have a crisis, so let’s take it head-on. Time is of the essence,” Monteith told The Bee. “Groundwater affects us all, whether you live out in the country or in a city.”

Monteith said more information about the county’s groundwater supplies and well pumping levels is needed, but “it’s going to take years to accumulate that data, and I don’t think we have that much time.”

So stopping the issuing of new drilling permits “is the proper action.”

Drilling permits soar

A record-shattering number of well permits have been issued already this year in Stanislaus, according to statistics released Wednesday to the Water Advisory Committee.

From Jan. 1 through Sept. 22, the county handed out 390 drilling permits, compared with just 175 during the same period in 2013. Most of the new wells are for ag irrigation, including 95 in eastern Stanislaus and 179 elsewhere in the county.

Supervisor Terry Withrow jolted the water committee to attention Wednesday morning by announcing that the Board of Supervisors would be considering a moratorium.

“They’ve got the votes right now,” said Withrow, indicating that three of the five supervisors support a moratorium.

Neither Withrow nor Supervisor Vito Chiesa backs a well-drilling ban.

That leaves Supervisor Bill O’Brien.

O’Brien told The Bee that for him “every option is on the table.”

“Bring me a proposal I can evaluate,” said O’Brien, explaining that he won’t support or oppose any plan he has not seen.

O’Brien said he is concerned that Stanislaus is not moving fast enough to address water supply concerns, but fears adopting a policy that would create legal liability for the county.

“We have to come up with a sustainable groundwater policy,” O’Brien said. He agreed that rangeland conversion is a problem, but he said that’s true countywide – not just on the east side. “Every additional acre you put into production is going to make it that much harder to get sustainability.”

Vito Chiesa said he wants the Water Advisory Committee “to come up with facts before we react.”

That 21-member committee started meeting in February, and it’s been debating options for monitoring and regulating groundwater pumping since them.

Chiesa said Withrow favors giving the committee more time.

DeMartini doesn’t. He called the committee “useless,” saying too many of its members have conflicts of interest.

The all-male committee includes farmers who pump groundwater, well drillers, pump installers, Farm Bureau leaders, ag industry professionals and irrigation district directors, along with city representatives and a couple of unaffiliated community members.

The committee agreed Wednesday that it would discuss the merits of a moratorium at its next meeting, at 6 p.m. Oct. 8 in the Kirk Lindsey Center, 1020 10th St., Suite 102, Modesto.