“Steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you king”…Uncle Bob
It was big news when the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) caught six customers stealing water from MID canals. The culprits were not only fined, their names were published in the Modesto Bee.
The fines, thought to be in the neighborhood of $1500, were food for thought when someone at the MID Board meeting wondered whether water thieves would also have to pay for the water they take.
It’s a good question. At today’s rates, it wouldn’t take much water to make a $1500 fine a bargain. In the Westlands Water District, those who can get it are paying as much as $1100 an acre foot and begging for more.
On the other hand, the smart money has already moved to San Joaquin Valley foothills, where water’s free for the taking. And the really shrewd players have sunk wells near rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, where they can tap other people’s water compliments of a legal system rigged against the public interest.
Geologists and hydrologists agree that surface water and groundwater are connected. In fact, Stanislaus County Geologist Dr. Horacio Ferriz said recently,
“Yes, those growers who have the good luck of farming within a few thousand feet from a river, lake, or reservoir could probably drill shallow wells that are very productive. And yes, those wells would eventually be recharged from those bodies of water.”
Given the realities of groundwater science, no one should be surprised to see almond orchards sprouting in profusion around rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. What’s surprising is the failure of citizens and their leaders to protest the taking of their water during the worst drought in anyone’s memory.
Even while farmers who belong to irrigation districts are having their allotments cut and many citizens are letting their lawns and gardens die, foothills farmers are pumping tens of thousands of acre feet of water free of charge. Much of that water belongs to the very citizens and farmers who are being penalized for playing by the rules.
But that’s just the way things work down here in the groundwater rabbit hole. While the rest of the state is trying to deal with dry wells, brown lawns, fallowed fields, and dying fish, the players with industrial-sized pumps are cranking out 2500 gallons a minute compliments of state and local authorities in the grip of modern-day hydrophobia.
Though they’re not quite foaming at the mouth, state and regional leaders also can’t face water facts. With large portions of the land sinking, aquifers draining to the point of no recovery, and another dry year looming, all California’s leaders can agree on is that groundwater regulation should remain in the hands of local authorities.
But local authorities have shown long ago they can’t handle groundwater problems. If they could, the state wouldn’t have an annual overdraft of between 500,00 and 1.5 million acre feet per year. Decade after decade, the only message local authorities have sent about groundwater is loud and clear: take a little and they’ll make you pay; take a lot, and the people pay.