It’s only fitting that some of the speakers during Tuesday’s public comment portion of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors meeting had names like “Smith” and “Jones.” It was one of those rare moments when ordinary citizens speak in unison and form a truly “public” opinion.
The keynote was sounded by John Booker, a retired architect from Oakdale, who represented over one-hundred members of the Stanislaus Water Coalition:
“It is almost impossible to drive one mile in the eastern part of Stanislaus County today without seeing a newly planted orchard, or ground being prepared in anticipation of planting at the earliest opportunity, he said.
“This rush to cash in on unheard of profits is very reminiscent of the California gold rush of 150 years ago. Then, like now, little regard was given to the consequences of their actions, or the harm that might come to others. ‘Get rich quick’ was the only thing that mattered. Our precarious groundwater situation is analogous to a wildfire burning out of control and the issuance of hundreds of new industrial well drilling permits is like using gasoline to extinguish the flames.”
Booker cited studies by the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) that showed groundwater levels dropping from May 2005 through November 2013.
“The really scary part is that these steady declines were occurring before the county issued hundreds of new well drilling permits for new orchards,” he said.
Calling the situation a “perfect storm,” Booker called for a moratorium on “all new industrial-size agricultural well-drilling permits.” He then asked that Stanislaus County fund an Environmental Impact Report to determine the impact new wells “may have on the long-term sustainability of our groundwater table.”
After Booker’s presentation, a long line of Valley citizens spoke again and again about the ongoing harm brought about by mining groundwater in the foothills. Two themes dominated: speculation and sustainability.
“Outside speculators…have put our community in crisis,” said Frank Clark.
“It’s so unfair,” said Kathy Smith. “Those speculators are planting on rangeland that has no chance of getting [surface] water.”
“I’m in the process of losing my well,” said Mabel Jones.
The citizen outcry came directly after a glowing report about Stanislaus County’s record farm income. Almonds replaced dairy products as the number one farm product and produced over a billion dollars in gross income. The report also noted that over the last seven years there was 61,000 acre increase in almond orchards.
If it weren’t for a historic drought, the proliferation of almond acreage might go unnoticed. But today, almost everyone knows almonds require lots of water. In fact, 61,000 acres require over 180,000 acre feet of water a year, just about the same amount needed to serve the entire city of Modesto.
The farm income report didn’t say how many acres of those new orchards rely solely on groundwater, but Valley citizens are learning the hard way that it’s far too many. Absent quick action by Stanislaus County Supervisors, only the state can prevent an epic catastrophe.