Jeff Jardine

Almond joy? Not out on Horseshoe Road

A freshly planted orchard is bordered by an irrigation canal near Knights Ferry east of Oakdale. Residents are frustrated that the planting continues as the drought worsens.
A freshly planted orchard is bordered by an irrigation canal near Knights Ferry east of Oakdale. Residents are frustrated that the planting continues as the drought worsens. jjardine@modbee.com

From their homes along Horseshoe Road east of Oakdale, residents can’t help but notice the prominent mast of a well-drilling rig atop the hill to the west. An attached United States flag ripples in the breeze.

Like so many other wells in the area, it will pump water from deep in the ground to feed orchards. This bluff above the Stanislaus River basin is for miles green with almond trees planted over the past seven or so years.

Much of it belongs to Trinitas Partners, an investor group that has turned what once was cattle-grazing land into thousands of acres of orchards east of Oakdale. They aren’t neighbors, the Horseshoe Road folks say. They aren’t friends. In fact, many of the people who have lived on their ranchettes for decades don’t even consider what’s going on above them agriculture because the almonds are destined for China and elsewhere for big bucks.

The almond industry more and more is on the defensive as the drought drags on, water rules are imposed on municipalities and wells are in jeopardy of going dry. It isn’t making any fans out on Horseshoe, which is off Orange Blossom Road about 9 miles east of Oakdale.

“This is an export business,” said Kathy Smith.

In 2011, she and husband Bill had to dig a new well because theirs went dry, not coincidentally, they say, after growers sank new and deeper wells to sustain the new orchards. Even with their new-and-improved model sunk to a depth of 215 feet, Smith said, the water level has dropped 3 feet in three-plus years.

Likewise, 36-year resident Gail Altieri said her well level has dropped 12 feet since 2008, including 5 feet in the past six months. The residents are frustrated. More than anything, they are scared that the deep-pocketed farmers/investors and Oakdale Irrigation District – which will run its pumps throughout the district 24/7 throughout the irrigation season – will simply keep playing groundwater-well leapfrog, each well going deeper than the previous one, and possibly causing their own wells to go dry.

They note what’s happened in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, where so much groundwater has been pumped that the land is sinking and where the wells in the Tulare County town of East Porterville failed and left residents with no water.

Hence, they cannot understand why, with California mired in its worst drought on record, more ground is being ripped up and more orchards are being planted, the thirsts of which will be sated by drilling more wells and pumping more groundwater. Indeed, continue east on Orange Blossom Road past Horseshoe, and you’ll see newly planted orchards with drip irrigation piping evident alongside the road and along Sonora Road as well, with more land being readied for planting.

But they really do know the answer: money.

Clearly, there is a growing panic among these folks and others throughout the Valley and foothills as the forest of nut trees expands.

Wednesday evening, a group of about 30 Horseshoe Road dwellers gathered on Pete and Peggy Van Vliet’s patio to share stories and talk about their options. Residents of Valley Home who already replaced their well due to groundwater pumping joined them.

They plan to hold a meeting at 7 p.m. June 25 at the Knights Ferry Community Center to make people aware of their concerns and to warn others that if the aquifer is sucked dry, it won’t be limited to their little dot on the map. They are hoping for a big turnout of east-county residents who will share their concerns, fears and apprehensions, and any other information. They worry that their property values will drop with their well water levels.

“The issue is, can the water be replenished and how long will it take?” one neighbor said. “I have no problem with planting almonds and putting people to work. But if the water can’t be replenished for 1,000 years, that’s a problem.”

Their way of life, they’ll tell you, has been disrupted by the steady stream of trucks and traffic created by the almond boom.

“I’m 70 years old and I’ve been here for 36 years,” Altieri said. “How dare they infringe on my well-being and the serenity out here?”

The group plans to invite Bill O’Brien, the Stanislaus County supervisor who represents them. They plan to invite Jeff Denham, the congressman who campaigns as “local farmer,” hoping he will advocate for the local people instead of the hedge fund crowd that has invested so heavily in the industry. They’ll invite anyone and everyone among the water decision-makers.

And they’ll invite representatives from Trinitas, who are operating within their legal rights to buy land, drill wells, plant almonds and pump massive amounts of groundwater, albeit with absolutely no legal or financial responsibility when other folks’ wells go dry.

If the Trinitas folks and other almond growers feel they are being unjustly vilified these days, perhaps they could consider the meeting in Knights Ferry a chance to meet the neighbors and assuage some fears.

The caveat: They’ll need to bring their own bottled water. The residents won’t be providing it. They’ve already done enough of that.

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

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