Stanislaus considers new rules for groundwater wells

Modesto Bee

After about six months of debate, Stanislaus County’s Water Advisory Committee is set to vote Wednesday on an expanded groundwater ordinance.

It also will discuss the advisability of imposing a drilling moratorium on new water wells.

The committee has been probing concerns about falling groundwater levels and considering options for attaining sustainability. It’s been trying to cobble together a compromise that’s acceptable to competing interests and compliant with new state laws.

The result is an eight-page proposed ordinance to prevent any “undesirable result” from groundwater extraction. Defining exactly what that means, of course, is the tricky part.

Example: While the ordinance says “chronic lowering of groundwater levels” is undesirable, it exempts over-drafting during droughts.

It also exempts public water agencies and “their rate payers” because they have their own groundwater management plans.

That would mean farmers whose wells are within the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts would be exempt from the county’s groundwater ordinance.

Small domestic wells and any-size well inside a city limit also would be exempt from the new sustainability rules.

The big change being proposed is that “all persons including public water agencies that extract groundwater” would have to report how much water they’re pumping and what the water level is in their wells.

Details on how that would be done haven’t been hammered out yet.

But once county officials get that information, they intend to keep it secret. The proposal is to exempt that pumping and water level data from the California Public Records Act so it can’t be disclosed.

“That water well extraction data from persons is confidential and proprietary information,” the proposal states. It says the need to “maintain the confidentiality of such information outweighs the public need for site specific private information.”

Instead, the ordinance says the public will get access to aggregated data.

Many of the Water Advisory Committee’s 21 members – particularly those who farm – have balked at the idea of people finding out how much water they’re pumping. They’ve expressed fear that such data could be used against them by attorneys filing lawsuits linked to groundwater depletion.

The ordinance also proposes that those who apply for well construction permits after Nov. 25 be required to “demonstrate with substantial evidence that … (their new well) will not result in unsustainable extraction of groundwater.”

But plenty of landowners would be exempt from that rule, too.

More than 400 well-drilling permits already have been granted this year in Stanislaus, and the Nov. 25 cutoff date may trigger a run on permits by rural landowners who want to avoid providing such evidence.

There was a surge on permits one month ago after word spread that some members of the Board of Supervisors wanted a moratorium on well drilling.

Rather than voting on a moratorium proposal as it was rumored they would in September, supervisors directed the Water Advisory Committee to kick around the idea first.

So that’s what the committee will do Wednesday, but there isn’t a specific proposal they will consider.

Even without a moratorium, under the way the proposed ordinance is written, well owners will have to comply with “groundwater sustainability plans” that eventually will be written. Who will write those plans or when that will happen hasn’t been determined.

The committee will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Kirk Lindsey Center, 1020 Tenth St., Modesto.

A copy of the proposed ordinance is posted with this story online at www.modbee.com.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.