To hear the Modesto Bee tell it, Stanislaus County Supervisors’ attempts to formulate a groundwater policy are explorations into terra incognita:
“Being first can make you the focus of a lot of attention. That’s just one of the reasons Stanislaus County’s efforts to deal with water issues are important. We’re among the first in the Valley coming to grips with finding and supplying enough water to keep agriculture not just alive but thriving.”
But county groundwater policies are nothing new. Neighboring San Joaquin County began monitoring groundwater use in 1971, over forty years ago. The effort continues today. Yolo County has a plan any interested citizen can access and review. Both plans could be emulated, and it wouldn’t take a committee to do so.
It’s certainly true that in many areas of the San Joaquin Valley there is neither monitoring nor regulation. That’s why one section of the Valley features the largest area of land subsidence (due to overdrafting groundwater) in the world. Overall, over 5200 acres in the Valley have subsided at least one foot, according to measurements made in 1970. The largest measured subsidence was near Mendota. There, the land had sunk almost thirty feet.
So why the mystification about groundwater in Stanislaus County? Much of the confusion comes from an effort by the recently appointed Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee (SWAC) to wrap groundwater issues in a shroud of smoke.
The committee’s efforts aren’t anything new. There’s a long tradition nationwide of keeping groundwater exploitation out of sight and out of mind. But history is now at a turning point. The current drought has magnified attention and new media have made access to water news widely available. Today, those who wish to keep groundwater exploitation to themselves have nowhere to hide.
On June 10, Stanislaus County Supervisors will review the SWAC recommendations. Although the recommendations are called an “action plan,” they are better described as an inaction plan. The clear attempt is to stall. Instead of approving the plan, the supervisors at the very minimum should approve the following:
- A moratorium on new well permits with exceptions for emergencies.
- A requirement that large growing operations identify sustainable water sources before planting for the first time.
- A requirement for an Environmental Impact Report for large growing operations before planting for the first time.
- Hiring an expert or expert team of scientists with no local political or financial affiliations.
The supervisors will have to contend with intense political pressure to do anything meaningful. It’s far more likely they’ll choose to delay, defer, and duck. But this is a new era of resource realities, and every moment of delay permits ongoing depletion of one of the last of the San Joaquin Valley’s viable aquifers.
Delay will also hasten state intervention. News of the groundwater crisis has spread throughout California, and no one is advocating doing nothing. Stalling tactics are no longer politically viable. Most people know that even if we get three unusually wet years in row, there won’t be enough rain to restore depleted aquifers.
SWAC member Terry Withrow, a county supervisor, has said repeatedly that everyone is watching Stanislaus County and he’s right. New media like Aquafornia, Maven’s Notebook, and Brown and Caldwell Water News offer the people of California easy access to water news. There’s now widespread awareness of the manifold negative effects of overdrafting.
Stanislaus County Supervisors have an unprecedented opportunity to lead the way to local management of groundwater resources. Unfortunately, it looks as though they’re poised to follow a path of least resistance into yet another San Joaquin Valley sinkhole. Let’s hope they step forward and do the right thing.
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