Groundwater concerns shared at Stanislaus water summit

The drought and concerns over groundwater dominated Stanislaus County politics in 2014, and it looks like that will continue this year.

More than 170 people showed up Friday for an all-day Water Summit focused on groundwater and what the county must do to ensure it’s managed in a sustainable way for future generations.

The public gathering was designed to foster cooperation among Stanislaus’ irrigation districts, municipal water agencies, farmers, businesses and residents.

“We need to start thinking regionally,” said Terry Withrow, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. “We’ve got to get out of our silos … and start thinking about our neighbors.”

A new state law requires people in every California groundwater basin to create a plan for protecting their groundwater resources so aquifers aren’t pumped so much that water levels plummet and wells go dry.

Exactly how to do that is the challenge. The state wants local communities to devise their own solutions, while warning that it will step in if that doesn’t happen.

“We want to keep local control because we don’t want the state coming in, telling us what to do,” said Wayne Zipser, who runs the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and leads the county’s Water Advisory Committee.

But getting agreement about how to regulate groundwater use will require people with competing interests to work together.

“It’s all about trust,” Zipser said. “We’ve got to trust each other.”

It’s also going to require compromise, and not everyone who spoke Friday seemed eager to do that.

“I like this concept of regionalization,” said Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell. “But we in (irrigation districts) have a higher calling: The constituents in our districts come first.”

The water-rich OID routinely gets more Sierra runoff than its farmers need, and it regularly exports water to out-of-county agencies willing to pay premium prices for it.

Despite selling that surface water, OID continues to pump groundwater from the county’s aquifers. Last year, it pumped a record 17,000 acre-feet, while storing surplus surface water in its reservoirs.

Knell said the Oakdale residents who built the OID system did so “for the benefit of those citizens alone,” and he noted that water conservation is not a part of OID’s water resources plan.

Knell defended OID’s practice of exporting water. He said that if OID doesn’t sell its surplus – as it plans to do again this year – then it would have to raise its water rates and “unnecessarily burden” its farmers to get the funds it needs to modernize its district.

Others at Friday’s summit talked about the importance of keeping as much water as possible within Stanislaus’ borders to lessen groundwater overdraft and to meet the entire county’s needs.

Finding enough water for both agriculture and people is expected to be a challenge this year, as the drought appears to be extending into a fourth year.

“It’s going to be a dry winter,” warned Cindy Matthews from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’ve been below normal this entire water year so far.”

Matthews said the central Sierra snowpack is 33 percent of normal.

“We all know we’re in sad shape, and these are just numbers to support that,” Matthews said, showing how little precipitation there’s been. She predicted, “It’s going to be a really warm spring.”

How the continuing drought is impacting groundwater supplies for each of Stanislaus’ cities was shared during the summit. Every city reported that its residents are conserving water and using significantly less than in previous years.

While cities adjacent to rivers – such as Oakdale and Riverbank – have groundwater levels holding steady, Turlock’s well levels are declining.

Several cities also reported problems with tainted water, including unsafe levels of arsenic and nitrates.

Summit participants raised concerns about the long-term impact of pumping groundwater to irrigate new orchards on formerly dry rangeland. Others stressed the need to find out exactly how much water is being pumped by farmers.

Some expressed fear about the financial impact that groundwater regulations might cause. And numerous questions were raised about who will pay for the groundwater-sustainability agencies the state says must be formed in Stanislaus County.

Those new agencies must be established by 2017. More public gatherings are planned about exactly how to do that.

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