Opinion Columns & Blogs

Come hell or low water, what’s underground must be preserved

These almond trees are flood irrigated in the Modesto Irrigation District.
These almond trees are flood irrigated in the Modesto Irrigation District. The Modesto Bee

After our recent drought, the importance of providing sustainable water supplies for California’s cities and farms – both now and over the long term – is clearer than ever. And long-term water planning has to include a commitment to manage groundwater aquifers carefully, recharging them whenever possible and pumping from them only when necessary.

Modesto must protect its groundwater supplies. It’s the only way for farmers and city dwellers alike to maintain their economy, their heritage and their very way of life for future generations.

It’s also the law.

Vance Kennedy, retired USGS geologist and Modesto citrus farmer, understands the importance of maintaining groundwater supplies, as he has explained in The Modesto Bee on several occasions. His recent opinion column, “Farmers replenish area’s aquifer; it’s worth the so-called ‘water subsidy’” (Nov. 7), further argues that the Modesto Irrigation District should keep its surface water prices arbitrarily low to minimize groundwater pumping. Kennedy worries farmers will pump more groundwater if, as he fears, the courts rule against the subsidy the MID has long used to keep surface-water prices low (and electricity rates high).

Kennedy is right that higher surface-water (from the Tuolumne River) prices would seem to encourage groundwater pumping. But he is wrong that overpumping need be the actual result. And he is wrong that Modesto electricity customers should be overcharged in order to undercharge Modesto farmers for MID water.

Kennedy knows “long-term planning is imperative,” but thinks courts would have to do it, and be bad at it. He needn’t worry. California’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, is requiring Modesto to take responsibility for managing its own groundwater (like every other water district in the state). If Modesto (or any other community) fails in its duty, the new law lets the state step in and take over the groundwater management directly.

Either way, careful stewardship of groundwater resources over the long term is the goal. Unrestricted pumping, just to get the cheapest water, will no longer be an option.

No farmer likes any price increase, of course, but pricing water at closer to its real cost hasn’t diminished agricultural production elsewhere in California.

Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have seen considerable price increases since the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed a quarter-century ago. And farmers in Kern County, who get their water delivered by the State Water Project, have always paid the full, precisely calculated cost of those deliveries, with operations, maintenance and the original construction costs of the project all rolled in. Farms in these areas have been tremendously successful.

Kennedy’s own numbers indicate that farmers within the MID produce about $500 million worth of food annually, while paying roughly $3 million for water. So, the cost of water in Modesto, a farmer’s most important resource, is just over one-half of 1 percent of the total value of production.

Adjusting to higher, cost-based, water prices would present challenges to Modesto’s farmers, of course. But other farmers in the Central Valley have faced these challenges successfully. California’s agriculture continues not only to be the nation’s breadbasket, but also literally feeds the world.

That won’t change if farmers in Modesto have to pay more for their water supplies.

The argument that higher water prices would drain the regional aquifer ignores the new state law, and the state’s new authority to prevent it. More importantly, it ignores the fact that we are far smarter about groundwater management than we were even 10 years ago.

Modesto’s voters elect members of MID, and the community has both the mandate and the opportunity to protect its own groundwater for future generations. Short-sightedness about overdrafting groundwater in California is obsolete.

Spreck Rosekrans is executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.