Tuesday, June 10, Stanislaus County Supervisors issued a blank check to water miners. Of those present, only Supervisor Jim DeMartini seemed willing to speak candidly about the process.
“This is like squirting water on the outhouse when your house is burning down,” he said.
DeMartini was referring to the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee’s (SWAC) seventeen point “action plan.” To many, the plan seems dedicated to avoiding groundwater problems rather than solving them.
“It seems like they don’t want to deal with the issue,” said DeMartini after the meeting. “I’ve got one field of corn I’ve got to let die because my water allotment has been reduced and these guys [eastside orchard owners] can pump all the water they want to.”
As DeMartini sees it, the real problem is the proliferation of permanent crops on pasture land on the county’s east side—a practice many experts believe is unsustainable because of reliance on finite supplies of groundwater.
“There’s at least 30,000 acres out there on pasture land,” said DeMartini. “That’s the elephant in the room.”
Of those 30,000 acres, only 7,000 acres are served by an irrigation district. The rest are dependent on groundwater. And while the SWAC has devised a five year plan to study the problem, committee members seem unwilling to address immediate concerns of dry wells and depleted aquifers.
“This won’t help us now,” admitted Walt Ward, the county’s Water Resources Manager. “It’s for the future.”
The future doesn’t offer much hope for people whose wells have gone out, especially those on fixed incomes. And for people worried about what will happen when the aquifers are depleted beyond recovery, the future seems especially bleak.
Vance Kennedy, a retired U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, submitted a letter to the supervisors that said in part that powerful wells draw water from thousands of feet around the well. The conventional picture of a “cone of depression” is inaccurate for soil like that found on the county’s east side, said Kennedy. In such soil formations, water moves more readily from the sides of the well than from beneath the well.
Again, only Jim DeMartini seemed to sense the urgent implications of Kennedy’s observations:
“We’re years behind in addressing the issue,” he said. “I don’t know how you can address sustainable groundwater management when you allow the conversion of rangeland for farming; you’re not addressing the issue at all. The drought really has very little to do with this problem.”
The drought may be having an effect no one has considered, however. If Vance Kennedy is right, the pumps adjacent to rivers, streams, and reservoirs are pulling water from beneath those sources. That means surface water is literally being diverted before it gets downstream. If that’s the case, farmers who are complaining about increased flows for fish should be equally concerned about diversions occurring upstream.
Probably because it seemed inevitable the SWAC recommendations would pass, even DeMartini joined in approving them. But the final say may belong to Supervisor Vito Chiesa, whose remarks near the end of the meeting seemed prophetic:
“We don’t have five years,” he said. “We’re going to have to do something.”
Next: “Why Property Rights and Groundwater Won’t Wash”