Water agencies coming around on Stanislaus groundwater vision

Captured storm runoff is used to irrigate an almond orchard Jan. 19, 2016, at the Paradise Road farm of Nick Blom, a board member for the Modesto Irrigation District.
Captured storm runoff is used to irrigate an almond orchard Jan. 19, 2016, at the Paradise Road farm of Nick Blom, a board member for the Modesto Irrigation District. Modesto Bee file

The tricky task of getting public agencies on the same page for a topic as controversial as groundwater may have turned an important corner in Stanislaus County.

Its three largest water agencies – the Turlock, Modesto and Oakdale irrigation districts – previously turned a cold shoulder to a county-led plan for addressing groundwater concerns. But all softened recently and agreed to contribute some money to study how permits should be granted for new wells.

“It’s a new age in water,” Keith Boggs, county assistant executive officer, said Friday. In the past few months, he said, “I’ve seen an entirely different tone and culture of cooperativeness.”

Fearing the prospect of more regulation, the irrigation districts initially resisted when the county formed its Water Advisory Committee in early 2014 in response to state mandates prompted by the extended drought. Late last year, six of the county’s nine cities sent letters supporting the county’s application for a hefty state grant to help with the groundwater study, while the three irrigation districts and the east side cities of Oakdale, Waterford and Hughson stood back.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to participate.

Keith Boggs, Stanislaus County assistant executive officer

At the time, MID and TID said their “years of good work” should serve as a starting point for groundwater policy, rather than the county charting a new course. OID said it shouldn’t be expected to participate because its river water replenishes aquifers while cities’ pumping strains them, and suggested that the county pay the entire cost.

The county pushed on and in March landed the grant, which will cover $250,000, or 43 percent, of the $585,000 study. County leaders said they would cover $167,500, or half of the remaining expense, and came up with a cost-sharing formula requesting that cities pay based on population, and water agencies based on numbers of acres they serve. Modesto’s share, for instance, came to $25,125, while tiny Hughson would pay $503; TID, MID and OID would pay $32,911, $18,261 and $16,558, respectively. Six smaller water agencies would pay less, and some private growers and food processors were invited to pitch in as well.

Eventually, all cities came around, then some small water agencies, followed by TID and MID.

TID had “initial reservations,” district spokesman Calvin Curtin said, but became “comfortable moving forward alongside the county” when the county modified its work plan.

TID looks forward to continuing its partnership with the county on this project and other outside threats.

Calvin Curtin, TID spokesman

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday learned that those invited to contribute had put up two-thirds of the money sought, or $112,400. Knowing they might have to eat the rest, supervisors awarded a $585,000 contract to Roseville-based Jacobson James & Associates.; that firm last year had signed on, for $50,000, to help the county come up with a groundwater plan, and with other amendments its total contract now tops $660,000.

On Wednesday, OID leaders weighed whether to come aboard. County Supervisor Terry Withrow had sent a letter noting that the county had “significantly revised” its plan based on OID’s input and asking “one last time” to join the cause.

“I firmly believe that we can accomplish great things together through mutual coordination and collaboration,” Withrow wrote.

In a report, OID management criticized the county effort, saying it was “rushed” and done “without much, if any, consensus building in its development. That should not be acceptable in subsequent program implementations.” The cost-sharing formula should recognize, the report said, that some agencies put more water into aquifers than they take out through pumping.

OID is one of the least-pumping agencies yet is paying the third-highest amount. In subsequent requests from the county, a fairness standard needs to be established.

Management report to OID board

“On the other hand, this is not a whole lot of money given the necessity to begin developing working relationships” for groundwater plans, the OID report said.

In the end, the OID board unanimously agreed to send $14,400, or 13 percent less than asked because 13 percent of OID’s service area is in San Joaquin County.

“It’s a good-news story that OID participated,” Boggs said.

Those yet to contribute include Patterson-based Del Puerto Water District, Los Banos-based Central California Irrigation District and the Manufacturers Council of the Central Valley, which includes companies such as E.&J. Gallo Winery, Del Monte and Stanislaus Food Products.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390