Two things were crystal clear after Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien met with members of the Stanislaus Water Coalition last Wednesday in Oakdale. One, Supervisor O’Brien wants no part in regulating water use in Stanislaus County. And two, members of the Stanislaus Water Coalition agree that the state’s 2040 deadline to achieve groundwater sustainability is far too distant to prevent serious and lasting harm from ongoing overdrafting of groundwater.
A number of concerns were expressed during the 75 minute meeting. Most of them focused on the metastatic spread of almond orchards on the county’s east side.
“Nothing’s likely to happen for six to eight years,” said one committee member. “I hope there’s more supervision then than there is now. Who’s at the controls?”
Supervisor O’Brien emphasized that this week’s passage of groundwater legislation by the state would bring about a change in groundwater use. He also said repeatedly that he did not want to be part of a water-use authority.
“As you probably know, the county is not a water supplier,” said O’Brien. “Anytime the county tries to tell a city or water district what to do, it doesn’t go over very well.”
When asked how fast he thought the supervisors could address problems caused by overdrafting groundwater, O’Brien said repeatedly that he preferred a separate authority altogether.
“I prefer a separate board,” he said. “I prefer elected, not appointed. As long as we set it up locally, we have local control. My preference is a separate elected board.”
Committee members were eager to point out that problems from overdrafting were getting worse every day.
“There are entire towns that have depleted their water,” said one.
“The raptors are suffering,” said another. “It affects the whole environment.”
“The time interval is way too far; this process needs to be kicked up,” said Emerson Johnson. “We have to fight this battle all by ourselves. There has to be a constant concern for those people who are losing their wells.”
Sharon Gretchel said, “I still see orchards going in and wells being drilled.”
“What exactly is being done besides forming a committee?” said someone else.
“We are moving in the right direction” said Neil Hudson, who is also a member of the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee. “A moratorium brings on a lot of legal liabilities.”
But anyone who thinks “legal liabilities” will end with the appointment of a new groundwater authority is indulging in wishful thinking. For investors and speculators in the almond boom, litigation is just a cost of doing business. And the business of almonds is a time-management game. Every harvest past the five year mark means a return on investment. At $5,000 an acre, those with thousands of acres net millions of dollars. There’s a lot to be gained from legal delays and intimidation.
Meanwhile, industrial-sized pumps by the hundreds are spreading water overs tens of thousands of acres of former rangeland where those who own the new almond orchards know they have years and years to keep on pumping. For members of the Stanislaus Water Coalition, who raised so many legitimate and compelling issues, there was only one answer, and it came from a fellow committee member:
We don’t have the time,” he said. “That’s the problem.”