Being first can make you the focus of a lot of attention. That’s just one of the reasons Stanislaus County’s efforts to deal with water issues are important. We’re among the first in the Valley coming to grips with finding and supplying enough water to keep agriculture not just alive but thriving.
There were two water-related developments last week worth noting:
• The Water Advisory Committee’s list of recommendations to create a sustainable groundwater supply. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start.
• A group chaired by former Modesto City Councilman Brad Hawn is pushing a plan to take highly treated wastewater from Modesto and Turlock and pipe it to the west side, where desperate farmers are waiting.
Next stop, supervisor’s agenda
There is much to admire in how a group of 21 people from across the county not only coalesced, but came up with groundwater recommendations within 100 days. It’s hard to get 21 people to agree on the time for lunch, much less something as complicated and controversial as groundwater.
From the outside, it might appear the committee is only nibbling at the five elements the state wants addressed. But bigger chunks would be hard to swallow for many. Some impressions:
Members of this local government committee remained remarkably reluctant to share any information with their local government about how much water they’re pumping. They insist on aggregating data into large blocks to obscure any responsibility for pumping. Their fear is that government uses any information provided by individuals to punish those who provided it. Perhaps those farmers fear they will be held financially responsible if their neighbors’ wells run dry. We’re not lawyers, but it seems if the county knows and approves of the pumping, then it’s the county’s responsibility if something goes wrong.
Speaking of dry wells, there were no recommendations for real help for people whose wells are going dry now, other than imploring the county to seek state and federal money to fix them. That’s not good enough.
Perhaps the most positive thing in the recommendations was consideration of “local groundwater management entities.” A similar approach has been used to address farm runoff, with the state’s most successful example being the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, based in Modesto. Having convinced farmers their best defense against state over-reach and lawsuits was through concerted action, the coalition has collected a lot of data. Most of it proves farmers are not bad actors intent on destroying anything that swims.
The committee also put a dollar figure on how much all this planning is going to cost: $532,840. That sounds like a bargain. The ball is in the supervisors’ court now.
From flush to farm?
The proposed pipeline from Modesto and Turlock to the west side has support from west side farmers, the cities of Modesto, Turlock and Ceres, at least one county supervisor and maybe even the federal government.
The plan is to take 50,000 acre-feet of carefully treated wastewater – yes, sewage, but also storm runoff made so clean you can swim in it – and pipe it to Del Puerto Water District.
The plan needs support from the federal government because, well, waste happens year-round. So the treated water will have to be stored in San Luis Reservoir until needed.
Currently, the cities put most of their treated wastewater into the San Joaquin River. State regulations already require that water going into rivers be treated to a point where it’s actually better than the water already there. But upcoming regulations will be even more stringent (though we don’t know what more regulators can ask).
So the solution is to put that water somewhere else – like on a field of tomatoes, cantaloupes or almonds.
Hawn said the idea came up when former supervisor Jeff Grover organized a trip to Salinas, where treated wastewater has been growing strawberries, lettuce and artichokes for years.
It’s hard to see how anyone could be against moving water from a treatment plant to a field – unless they’re coveting the water themselves. Stay tuned.
By being first with the groundwater plan and the pipeline plan just means we’re getting started that much sooner.