Knights Ferry water discussion is tense but civil

Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien speaks during a community meeting in Knights Ferry on Thursday.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien speaks during a community meeting in Knights Ferry on Thursday. aalfaro@modbee.com

It was hard for some people to hear at the Knights Ferry Community Club on Thursday night. But it’s always hard to hear when you don’t like what others are saying.

With the low buzz generated by 250 people packed into two adjoining rooms, a speaker too small to get the words out and air thick with Valley heat, most everyone was straining to hear. Impressively, that strain seldom lapsed into incivility.

Yes, it was contentious; it was a bit noisy; but it was mostly polite.

That’s important. Because the meeting convened by the Stanislaus Groundwater Alliance could have gotten rowdy. Really rowdy. After all, everyone was there to talk about water.

The usual laundry list of oft-discussed and thoroughly contentious issues were on the agenda:

Wells going dry.

Almonds sucking up groundwater.

The state demanding more of what we’re running out of.

Huge ag pumps making too much noise.

Trucks and tractors kicking up dust and fouling the air.

“We understand there’s anger here,” said Stanislaus Supervisor Bill O’Brien, “we feel it, we know it.”

And it didn’t take long for others to express it.

“The megafarmers have moved into our area, not the other way around,” said Gail Altieri, one of the two moderators. “Most of us are here because we’ve already lost something.”

Jamie Coston chimed in: “This is a hot, emotional issue; a lot of people in this room have lost wells; someone lost a well this morning. We’ve got to save our resources.”

As the evening progressed, Oakdale Irrigation District general manager Steve Knell was asked to explain why the district made a deal to sell Stanislaus River water to Trinitas LLC, the hedge fund that has 6,400 acres of almonds and permits to drill 30 ag wells.

Knell explained the district had not been using all of its allotted river water in the 1990s. So authorities who operate New Melones Reservoir, where OID’s water is stored, threatened to usurp some of the district’s rights if the water wasn’t put to good use. So the district began selling water to other districts. A few years later, it opted to annex Trinitas into the district so the company could use river water instead of pumping as much groundwater.

Made sense, though some people didn’t like hearing the answer.

Awhile later, a young man asked Knell why the district would continue to pump thousands of acre-feet of groundwater each year if it was having trouble using all of its surface water. It is doubtful Knell liked hearing that question.

Occasionally, questions became pointed, and the answers did, too.

“I can’t help what you think,” Knell responded to one question.

True enough. But the purpose of this meeting was to help people understand the issues. You can’t change anyone’s opinion without helping him understand what is actually happening. Being asked to do it in 3-minute bites was challenging, but possible.

For instance, one person asked how long it will take for rain to replenish our aquifers.

County water manager Walt Ward pointed out that we don’t depend on rain for recharge, we depend on snowmelt, one reason flood irrigation is crucial.

Cyndy Elliott told people about a little-used U.S. Department of Agriculture loan program to replace burned-out pumps and dry wells.

O’Brien explained that the State Water Resources Control Board is preparing demands to require far more water from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers for environmental purposes. “If Sacramento is successful,” he said, “things will drastically change, and it won’t be for the better. … We need to be holding hands” as we face this challenge.

There were farmers, public officials and even PR people in the audience, but they were outnumbered by ranchette owners. Their frustration and anger demonstrates the unfortunate friction created when large-scale ag rubs up against those trying to make quiet homes in the country.

It was up to the softest-spoken man in the room to make one of the evening’s loudest statements.

Vance Kennedy is 92. Before retiring, he was a top hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Asked a question about groundwater, he shifted the focus to mudslides. Describing how deep ripping on hillsides can loosen soils, he said a significant rain this year or next could cause entire hillsides to give way. The results could be catastrophic for the streams – or people – below and could pollute our rivers.

It was both a warning and a request that we should be thinking about more than merely our own issues.

We hope everyone could hear him.