Jeff Jardine

Anger flows with water woes

Modesto officials will ask the City Council to impose further restrictions on watering lawns to achieve an expected 35 percent water-use reduction mandate from the state.
Modesto officials will ask the City Council to impose further restrictions on watering lawns to achieve an expected 35 percent water-use reduction mandate from the state. aalfaro@modbee.com

Last summer, a Modesto resident provided city officials damning video evidence of a neighbor hand-watering plants in his yard on a non-watering day.

Call it one of those “gotcha” moments. Just one problem: The video also showed the lawn belonging to the whistleblower. It was greener and more lush than the yard of the neighbor he was ratting out.

The whistleblower “was watering every day,” Larry Parlin, Modesto’s public utilities director, told me. “He just didn’t like his neighbor, so he tried to turn him in.”

This year, we’re not even a month into spring and the city’s phones are ringing with complaints about neighbors overwatering.

“We’re getting bombarded with calls,” Parlin said. “About half of them are legit. The rest are just disputes between neighbors who don’t like their neighbors.”

A few days ago, the city said residents will need to reduce domestic water use by 35 percent. That warning came after Gov. Jerry Brown imposed mandatory restrictions. The state also is talking about setting aside the so-called senior water rights established before 1914. This is serious stuff.

This summer and fall, with no guarantee that 2016 will be any better, could test the limits of our behavior as water supplies become more and more precarious.

Will cooler heads prevail? Will people obey the rules? Will parks and athletic fields turn to dust? Will golfers pay brown fees instead of green fees?

Or will residents turn on one another like characters in an apocalyptic film? Think “Waterworld” sans the water, or “Mad Max.”

Already, the finger-pointing is evident:

▪ Folks blaming farmers for continuing to plant trees and pumping groundwater to keep them alive.

▪ Folks blaming the government and environmentalists for sending huge volumes of water down the rivers to help fish head to the ocean or return to spawn. Fish counts in the low double figures on the Stanislaus River suggest the steelhead didn’t get the memo detailing the scheduled dates and times of these so-called pulse flows.

▪ Neighbors blaming neighbors for wasting water. Pundits blaming the government’s failure to fix this mess before it reached this point.

And this is just the beginning.

Foothill reservoirs are extremely low. Some groundwater wells in the region went dry this past year and needed to be replaced. Pumping by farmers to keep their trees alive is only going to lower water levels even more.

Last year, Stanislaus County’s Office of Emergency Services began planning for the day when a large group of people – perhaps an entire subdivision or a collection of homes – sees its wells go dry, said Paul Gibson, the agency’s administrative manager.

“We assembled a list of vendors to get (drinking) water to them, porta-potties, non-potable water for bathing,” Gibson said. “And we initiated a conversation with the state about that.”

A rapid response would be imperative, but it won’t ease the anger.

When eight wells went dry north of Oakdale last year, residents including retired Stanislaus Superior Court Administrator Mike Tozzi were without water for several months. Tozzi and wife Melissa installed a 1,200-gallon tank and hired a company to truck in water. They bought a submersible pump to make it flow. They went to laundromats, used paper plates and hooked their small RV to the septic system.

Eventually, they were able to get a well driller to respond after all eight homeowners agreed to hand over $3,500 upfront to gain priority. After starting his well, Tozzi said, the contractor jacked up the price of labor by 25 percent with a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. Roughly $32,000 later – including the cost of the tank, drilling, a new pump, scaled-back landscaping and repairs to his pasture – he has a new well at a depth of 400 feet. He also has hard feelings for some of the nut growers who added orchards, installed deeper wells to sustain them and, he believes, caused his original well to go dry.

“That’s what we’re mad at,” he said. “They don’t stop. The orchards are going in and in and in.”

Shanna Eller, who holds a doctorate in urban studies and is the University of the Pacific’s sustainability director, believes people and agencies need to come together for the greater good to get through this drought.

“Good policy, a sense of camaraderie and commitment to each other,” she said. “It’s really about human-made choices. We will decide who we are, in our heart of hearts.”

Eller has a difficult time believing that Californians, with all of their available resources, technology and intellect, can’t figure this thing out – and quickly.

Otherwise, we’re in for folks staying angry at the government, at the farmers and irrigation districts, at the fish and at one another.

But if you’re going to rat out your neighbor for hand-watering plants on a no-water day, make sure your lawn isn’t greener than his.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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