If your accountant told you to keep spending money until you found out how much you had, you’d fire your accountant. But insanity about money doesn’t translate to insanity about water.
Spending without knowing how much you have is the rule with groundwater in California, and that’s why the state is over drafted almost everywhere. Up until recently, one of the few places that still had plenty of groundwater was eastern Stanislaus County. In typical fashion, local leadership is determined to make sure the county winds up as desperately overdrawn as most of the rest of the state.
Want proof? While everyone agrees that the thousands of acres of new orchards on the county’s east side are using groundwater at a pace far faster than can possibly be recharged anytime in the foreseeable future, a committee appointed to study the problem has rejected a moratorium on new wells.
That’s right. The Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee’s default position is that we need to keep drilling and pumping until we find out how much water we have.
Composed of twenty-one members, the committee has several members with conflicts of interest, mostly because they have financial or political reasons for preferring unlimited pumping of groundwater. Like many committees, the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee also has an enormous capacity for avoiding facts.
Consider this: The committee spent its first three months debating whether to require groundwater users to disclose how much water they pump. Members then patted themselves on the back for deciding that pumping information should be voluntary. But every member of the committee knows that any farmer can figure how much water a given crop uses over a given time. If a farmer couldn’t calculate water usage, he’d be out of business.
Farmers who pump groundwater need a certain amount of water and that amount varies very little from farm to farm, once differences for climate and soil are taken into account. Walt Ward, Stanislaus County’s Water Resources Manager, admitted as much at last Wednesday’s meeting. When a member of the audience commented that water usage for given crops was common knowledge, Ward agreed. He didn’t attempt to explain why the committee had wasted time and money pursuing an unnecessary recommendation.
Ward is in an awkward position. He’s very knowledgeable about water, but the committee has already rejected several of his recommendations. That was the committee’s way of telling him that in the contest between science and special interests, special interests win every time.
Here’s another inconvenient fact: Hydrologists can calculate how much an aquifer is depleted by a known amount of pumping. The figure is arrived at by measuring the ratio of sediment to water in a given aquifer. A typical aquifer on the Valley’s east side might contain between ten and twenty percent water. If you figure fifteen percent for the purposes of calculation, you can calculate that using one foot of water for irrigation will result in a seven foot drop in the aquifer, give or take a few inches.
If the aquifer drops much less than the calculation, you can be almost certain that the wells involved are drawing water horizontally. That means that over time, the wells are pulling water from neighboring sources. That’s why wells near large pumping operations are going out.
Wells near abundant sources of surface water almost never run dry. That’s because they draw water horizontally from under nearby lakes, rivers, or reservoirs. The so-called “underground rivers” of groundwater mythology are really subterranean channels fed by surface water.
This is another inconvenient fact the Water Advisory Committee is doing its best to avoid. If the general public knew that private landowners were diverting public surface water for their own uses, there would be an outcry and demand for regulation.
In the January/February issue of Western Water magazine, UC Davis Professor Jay Lund said,
“When we look at California’s water management and infrastructure from the top down, we are often missing this huge component of groundwater; it’s out of sight, out of mind. Groundwater has a tremendous role for storage, but we mine it as we did gold.”
The only way groundwater issues have of entering public awareness is through media, but thus far mainstream media have only aided and abetted public ignorance about our critical groundwater problems. In a recent Modesto Bee editorial, the Water Advisory Committee’s recommendations were called “a good start.”
They are indeed a good start toward depleting the aquifer beyond recovery. Nothing the committee recommended needed an expenditure of time and money. In fact, the best description of the committee’s actions was provided by former committee member and Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, when he resigned:
“The water committee is more about political cover than dealing with the issue.”
DeMartini also said that the problems with groundwater are obvious and the county has power enough to deal with them. DeMartini was right, and the first thing the county should do is place a moratorium on permits for wells.
The county should also disband the Water Advisory Committee. The committee is asking for $532,480 for further “planning.” Based on its progress so far, all the committee has done is confirm Jim DeMartini’s initial analysis. Using public money to aid in the abuse of public resources will leave the county liable to litigation.
In fact, two groups have already filed lawsuits against the county for continuing to issue well permits without considering environmental consequences. Just imagine the consequences of spending taxpayer dollars to provide information widely available at little or no cost. Imagine further what will happen when people realize the money is being used to provide political cover for a few powerful landowners while they drain an aquifer and divert public surface water to their own uses.
It does make sense, however, to bring in expert opinion. Paying for scientific information is at this point a necessity. Stanislaus County Supervisors don’t need a cumbersome committee to authorize a study uncontaminated by politics and vested interests. They should vote to disband the committee now and bring in a qualified person or team from outside the region. If they fail to do so, they are vulnerable to claims they’ve abused the Public Trust.