Our View: Moratorium is needed on Stanislaus County well permits

It was becoming apparent by last November that too much water was being pumped out of the ground. Still, The Bee recommended restraint in taking action. Like Stanislaus County, we feared a moratorium on new well permits would rain down lawsuits and make formulating a comprehensive approach to dealing with the groundwater crisis less likely.

By giving the county’s 21-member blue-ribbon advisory committee time to study and develop consensus, we hoped the urge to drill, drill, drill new wells would subside.

A lot has changed since we wrote that editorial – including our opinion.

The state has passed landmark groundwater legislation, requiring counties to establish plans for groundwater sustainability and create governing bodies to monitor and regulate use.

A judge in Siskiyou County ruled that groundwater can be protected as a public good, forcing landowners to stop pumping if it endangers nearby rivers.

San Luis Obispo County, which established a moratorium on well permits in 2013, added a mitigation requirement – demanding farmers who want to irrigate new vineyards with groundwater must first remove an equal number of irrigated acres from production. It also required all new wells to be metered and monitored.

Tonight the Stanislaus County Water Advisory Committee was scheduled to consider calls from two county supervisors to enact a moratorium on new well permits at its 6 p.m. meeting at 1020 10th St. That discussion has been delayed until Oct. 29.

We understand the value of getting something right before getting it done. But a moratorium should have been part of the committee’s considerations all along, a Plan B if needed.

The county and committee know well that an incredible 415 well permits have been issued this year – more than double last year’s record-breaking number. They’re also aware that as they have studied the issues, more and more residential wells have gone dry.

We appreciate the work the committee has done, and we recognize that it has laid the groundwork for what we hope will become the county’s mandated groundwater sustainability agency. But we can no longer sidestep the issue that aquifers across the county are falling dramatically, and delays in restraining pumping could even ruin their ability to be replenished. Refusal to accept those facts is simply denial.

Some will argue that so many permits have been granted that the horse long ago left the barn. But that fails to recognize the requirements of the groundwater legislation signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last month. Within two years, counties must develop a sustainable groundwater plan. So no matter how many of those wells are drilled, sustainability will undoubtedly mean limiting how much they can draw.

The Water Advisory Committee has the potential to become the authority on the county’s groundwater. It needs to have people with vested interests to help keep everyone honest. But if this committee is going to have an impact, it must shift its focus to protecting the county’s groundwater aquifers and supply.

Committee chair Wayne Zipser says the group needs at least its until Oct. 29 meeting to produce a recommendation. Three more weeks is not too much to ask to get it right.

But in light of the Siskiyou decision, the new groundwater law and the many dry wells, it is apparent we need some form of a moratorium. Next, let’s put a moratorium on delays.