Water & Drought

Experts discuss drought, water policy at Modesto summit

Valley Water Summit at Gallo Center in Modesto

The Modesto Bee and City of Modesto hosted the Valley Water Summit at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto on July 15, 2015. (Jim Silva/jsilva@modbee.com)
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The Modesto Bee and City of Modesto hosted the Valley Water Summit at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto on July 15, 2015. (Jim Silva/jsilva@modbee.com)

A four-year drought has brought California’s monumental water challenges sharply into focus.

Experts who spoke at Wednesday’s Valley Water Summit in Modesto covered most of the bases, including groundwater, the need for more storage, desalination and the proposed tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

About 450 people attended the summit titled “A Conversation on Valley Water,” held at the Gallo Center for the Arts and organized by The Modesto Bee and the city of Modesto. Five panelists brought their perspectives on drought impacts and the challenge of meeting the water needs of cities, farms, businesses and the environment.

“The loss of snowpack keeps me up at night,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board. If more precipitation falls in the form of rain instead of snow, the Golden State is late in taking action to adapt its water system, she said.

Marcus, who heads a powerful board that oversees the state’s water resources, said the administration in Sacramento wants to say “yes” to new water projects.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, was vocal about the need for effective legislation and fewer impediments to efforts to increase storage behind dams. She stressed that no amount of conservation will solve the problem.

After voters approved the issue of water bonds last year, it would be shameful to wait decades to allocate funds for storage projects, Olsen said.

Stanislaus County and other parts of the Valley have suffered from failed domestic wells and dwindling groundwater. Olsen said water cutbacks have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and put farmworkers out of work. Bottled water had to be delivered to Porterville residents who have no drinking water.

Other panelists were optimistic that local agencies and residents will find local solutions.

Randy Fiorini, a Turlock farmer and chairman of the Delta Stewardship Council, said Modesto has reduced its residential water use 35 percent, better than the state average of 29 percent.

Jeff Cowan, a businessman who served for 12 years on the Modesto Irrigation District board, cited the water treatment plant at Modesto Reservoir as an example of a groundwater-sustaining effort. Faced with aquifer overdrafting in the 1980s, MID and Modesto teamed on the project to treat river water for homes and businesses.

By relying more on surface water, Modesto’s groundwater levels have risen 40 feet, Cowan said.

Sarge Green, director of the California Water Institute in Fresno, said groundwater is overtapped in areas of the Valley and state. He said agriculture covers some of the best areas for getting water into the ground to refill aquifers. And a better-connected system of pumps and canals is needed for groundwater recharge.

Olsen sharply criticized sweeping groundwater legislation last year that essentially was written in three weeks’ time. She said a good deal of the language needs to be cleaned up to prevent unintended consequences.

Marcus countered that many interests were engaged in crafting the important legislation. The state will require local jurisdictions to create agencies for managing troubled groundwater basins.

Fiorini said Stanislaus County is in a good position to address its groundwater issues. The MID and Turlock Irrigation District include a combined 250,000 acres and can use their surface water supplies to bank water underground for the dry years, he said.

He added that flood-control improvements on Dry Creek and others prone to flooding could help recharge groundwater in the eastern part of the county.

Former Modesto Mayor Carol Whiteside served as moderator for Wednesday’s summit and asked panelists if more severe economic impacts would result from devoting more river water to the environment.

Fiorini, who is concerned with issues in the Delta, said regulators should pay more attention to other stresses on salmon in the Tuolumne River. He said it’s known that striped bass in Delta channels eat most of the salmon fry that are trying to reach San Francisco Bay and the ocean.

Marcus acknowledged that water shortages are hard on agriculture but said fish suffer the most during drought.

Fiorini shared the reasons for Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan for building two 40-foot-wide tunnels under the Delta to deal with salinity and protect fish. Critics suggest the $17 billion project won’t do enough for fish and wildlife and will simply send water to Southern California.

The discussion also touched on desalination as a solution for coastal cities, some of which rely on water imported from other parts of the state. Green expects to see advances in desalination technology that will lower costs.

Olsen said it takes years to develop desalination plants because of regulations imposed by the Coastal Commission.

The panelists agreed that the public can expect to pay higher costs for water and electricity because of California’s water challenges.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321

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