Merced Sun-Star
November 25, 2014

Stanislaus County supervisors voted Tuesday to tighten the rules for well permits, requiring farmers outside irrigation districts to show that new wells won’t have a detrimental effect on groundwater.

In another change to the county’s groundwater ordinance, pumping data will be collected from private well owners, but officials promised to keep the data confidential. Within 45 days, the county will hire a consultant to perform groundwater mapping for a plan to sustain the water tables outside irrigation districts.

Supervisors approved the changes on a 5-0 vote after attorneys representing growers and two West Side irrigation districts asked the board to delay action and clarify language in the amendments. Speakers supporting the rules said the county had wasted time before imposing restrictions on drilling high-capacity wells used to irrigate almond orchards in eastern Stanislaus County.

The county’s Water Advisory Committee proposed the amendments in response to state legislation that will require local planning for sustainable groundwater use. County Water Resources Manager Walter Ward said the state will intervene if local agencies fail to develop measures that prevent overdrafting of groundwater.

Supervisors tweaked some language in the first-ever groundwater ordinance, which was approved last year to restrict “groundwater mining.” That term is being replaced by “unsustainable groundwater management.”

Tuesday’s action does not apply to drilling within irrigation districts or well permit applications received before Tuesday. The Nov. 25 cutoff date seemed to result in a flood of recent well permit applications, including more than 100 since early October. The county has issued more than 500 permits for new wells this year, including 14 approved in a single day last week.

Many of the permit requests were from landowners around Oakdale.

John Harris, a resident east of Oakdale, said the increase in agricultural pumping is not sustainable, and he feared the environmental consequences of converting more land to orchards.

Brad Barker of Modesto said time had been lost in finding solutions to depletion of aquifers. He said the county’s standards for considering well permit applications need to be specific, and pumping data should be shared with the public.

Who makes the call?

Attorney Jeanne Zolezzi, counsel for the Patterson and West Stanislaus irrigation districts, said it wasn’t clear in the county proposal who would determine if a groundwater management plan complies with state legislation. It appeared that a state-approved “groundwater sustainability plan” could be evaluated by the county’s Water Advisory Committee, she said.

Zolezzi and Stockton attorney Steven Herum urged the board to postpone a decision and keep working on the language.

In a written comment, attorney Jennifer Spaletta, representing West Coast Grape Farming, argued that the more stringent review for well permits discriminates against a small group of landowners wanting to drill wells outside water districts. “Adopting this ordinance will infringe on property rights and subject the county to substantial legal risk,” Spaletta warned.

‘Sky is not falling’

Well driller Sean Roddy said domestic wells were failing because they were shallow and affected by drought, but were not a sign of a groundwater disaster. “The sky is not falling,” Roddy said. “This is a time we are going through. This just happens to be a dry pattern.”

Supervisor Terry Withrow urged interested parties to cooperate in finding solutions, saying, “We are not going to get anywhere if we attorney-up and fight over this.”

Supervisor Vito Chiesa said the county needs data from private wells to know what is sustainable. By studying how much is pumped from large agricultural and industrial wells, the county plans to monitor groundwater levels and get a clearer picture of deep aquifers.

Chiesa said he wants the board to revisit the groundwater ordinance if irrigation districts lose surface water to a state effort to restore salmon in rivers. If that were to happen, the county’s top industry would need to pump more groundwater to keep crops alive, he said.