Groundwater Crisis

Groundwater recharge project moves ahead

Map of Eastside Water District
Map of Eastside Water District Laurie McAdam

The Eastside Water District board voted Thursday to ask its farmers for $6 million for a groundwater recharge project.

The system would eliminate no more than 10 percent of the overdraft in the 61,000-acre district, which straddles Stanislaus and Merced counties southwest of Turlock Lake, but backers said it would be a worthwhile start.

“We have been studying this for 20 years … and we think this is the time to step up and hold our ground,” board Chairman Al Rossini said.

He voted with Ward Burroughs, Tim Johnson and Norik Naraghi to launch the process for assessing landowners for the project. Board member David Long was absent.

The district proposes to build a few shallow basins that would hold excess water from a Turlock Irrigation District canal, as well as Mustang and Sand creeks, in wet years. The water would seep into the ground and be available for use in Eastside, which depends almost entirely on wells. Recharge also could take place on farmland that is purposely flooded during winter.

Eastside farmers would pay up to $30 per acre per year to build the project to start. The figure would be adjusted for inflation over the 10-year buildout. The charges would be roughly $20 to $30 per year in the ensuing 15 years.

Under state law, the project could not go through if a majority of the 320 or so parcel owners file protests at or before a Nov. 19 public hearing.

Eastside is a key part of nut, wine grape and other crop production in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but it differs from typical irrigation districts. It gets minor amounts of water from the Tuolumne and Merced rivers and, in wetter times, has bought excess river supplies from TID and the Merced Irrigation District.

The four-year drought has raised concerns about overpumping of wells around the state, but Eastside’s issue goes back much further. It was established in 1985 in a part of the lower Sierra Nevada foothills that has had groundwater problems since the 1950s. The district has researched recharge and now is poised for a major project.

Part of it would involve paying TID for excess storm runoff into its Highline Canal, up to about 2,500 acre-feet in a year. Another 4,000 acre-feet could come from the creeks, assuming Eastside can secure rights to them in a costly and lengthy state process.

The district has identified four sites, ranging from seven to 49 acres, where recharge basins could be created with levees up to about 10 feet tall. It is waiting for landowner approval of the project before acquiring land or doing detailed design. The sites have soil and rock suited to downward percolation of water.

Eastside needs 70,000 to 75,000 acre-feet of recharge per year to stabilize the aquifer, though a realistic goal is only half that, consultant Kevin Kauffman said. The first project, he said, “does not put much water in the ground, but would make a pretty good start to it.”

The project could be part of the groundwater sustainability plan that the state is requiring of local entities under a law enacted last year.

“If we’re not in a position to show the state we are stewards, someone else is going to do it,” Rossini said.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

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