After months of dithering and ducking, the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee (WAC) may have finally lost its lease. It’s becoming ever more apparent the WAC’s purpose is exactly what Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said it was when he resigned as chair.
DeMartini said almost immediately after its formation that the purpose of the committee was to provide “political cover” for supervisors unwilling to take action on the groundwater pumping crisis caused by thousands of acres of new orchards on the county’s east side.
It now appears as though at least three supervisors may be willing to support a moratorium on new well permits. As mild a measure as it is, the prospect of a moratorium has thrown the WAC into a panic.
Though the committee was supposed to report to the supervisors last week, it asked for additional time to consider the moratorium. If we compare pumping on the east side to an out of control fire, all a moratorium would do is set up a temporary fire break. Nonetheless, even that measure seems beyond the committee’s capacity to act.
From the beginning committee members have recited two themes: “We need information,” they say, and, “We don’t know.”
In fact, a great deal is known about pumping groundwater on Stanislaus County’s east side. For one thing, over thirty thousand acres of new almond orchards require around a hundred thousand acre feet of water a year—enough water to serve the City of Modesto for a year and a half. For another, the county geologist has said pumping that amount of water will most likely lower the aquifer thirty feet a year.
These are rounded numbers, but given we also know the maximum recharge of the east side aquifer from rainfall is less than a foot a year, it’s clear that after the twenty-five year life cycle of one almond orchard, the east side aquifer is going to be useless for almost any purpose. That’s because the water level will be too far down for economic utility—it’s very expensive to pump water from over six-hundred feet below the surface.
Nonetheless, the WAC insists it needs more time to study the situation. This is like saying we need to study xylem, phloem, and the transpiration process before fighting a forest fire.
Probably the most penetrating comment about the WAC’s inability to act came from a member of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). An outgrowth of the WAC, the TAC is supposedly composed of members with more specific knowledge of water issues than that possessed by members of the WAC.
At the most recent TAC meeting, Supervisor Terry Withrow asked TAC members for advice. “You’re the experts,” he said. “Tell us what to do.”
In one of those rare moments when the truth burbles to the surface at meetings designed to avoid it, a TAC member replied, “How can we give you technical advice when you’re a political committee?”
With a few more such moments of truth and the willingness of Stanislaus County Supervisors to actually supervise, there won’t be a need for the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee. Jim DeMartini knew that months ago.