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Stanislaus County Has a New Groundwater Database, but Does It Matter?

Modesto Bee: The new system is a framework for future regulation, but well owners remain suspicious – and tightfisted with data.

Written by Garth Stapley, Modesto Bee Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Groundwater officials in Stanislaus County have reached a milestone by creating a database for well information. Whether they can persuade enough understandably skeptical well owners to divulge meaningful numbers is another thing.

From a glass-half-full perspective, no one approached by the county’s consultant has flat-out refused, he said.

On the other hand, only a precious few have said yes.

“It’s tricky,” Walter Ward, the county’s water resources manager, told Water Advisory Committee members in a recent meeting. “People are not quite willing to share yet because they’re not sure how (data are) to be used.”

Knowing how much water is being pumped could help show whether an aquifer is in danger of running low, the theory goes. To predict water table movement, the government seeks information on well size and depth and pumping patterns.

Ward’s office is particularly interested in rural eastern and northeastern stretches of the county, outside of cities and irrigation districts. Savvy growers and investors have converted rangeland there to mile upon mile of orchards, capitalizing on a strong global market for almonds and other nuts with thousands of new trees in recent years.

A resulting surge in groundwater pumping, combined with the ongoing drought, has been blamed for the failure of some shallower domestic wells. County supervisors have adopted some programs to help, while charging Ward’s office with an ongoing effort to propose policy for regulating pumping.

The newly created database will inform that policy, if enough data can be gathered. Ward compares the database to construction of a multilevel parking garage: “Now we’re starting to move cars into the parking spaces,” he told the Modesto Bee.

Already moved in are preliminary numbers from 1,516 well locations throughout the county gleaned from the California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring program. Consulting firm Tetra Tech obtained 1,051 water table measurements from those wells in 2014, hydrogeologist Steve Carlton told the Water Advisory Committee.

Next, Tetra Tech looked at reports submitted to the county on wells constructed from 1944 to 2009. Because leaders are most concerned about rural areas east and northeast of Oakdale, Carlton focused on the records of 2,578 wells in that area and weeded out 416 industrial-size wells with diameters of up to 20 inches, some as deep as 820 feet, with an average pumping capacity of 1,695 gallons per minute. More than 100 such huge wells have been added since, almost all assumed to be agricultural.

Carlton also took a historical view and found that in the final decade of his survey, more than half the wells were added in the last three years – coinciding with the time nut growers began planting orchards in earnest. Some committee members seemed impressed with the effort.

“They’re finally putting meat and potatoes on the plate,” said Jim Mortensen.

Terry Withrow, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said, “We’re moving along at light speed as far as government is concerned. Everyone is coming to the table.”

Tom Orvis, governmental affairs director at the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, also was encouraged but acknowledged the ongoing challenge of prying pumping secrets from those who have the most to lose. “They’ve got to build that trust factor,” he said.

Sean Roddy of Hennings Bros. Drilling Co., a committee member whose family has been sinking wells for 68 years, said he’s concerned about data reliability and the possibility of manipulation to fit a political agenda.

“If we give (the state) data, they can say we’ve got a problem when we don’t, and they can say, ‘Stop pumping water.’ That’s my concern,” Roddy said.

Neil Hudson, an Oakdale resident and president of a local water advocacy group, suspects well owners haven’t yet refused to share data for fear of unknown consequences. Meanwhile, ranchette owners and others with shallower domestic wells are plenty nervous, he said, and possibly could be harmed before a 2017 state deadline for forming groundwater sustainability agencies, or governing bodies managing aquifers.

“To me, the whole question is defining ‘sustainable,’” Hudson said. “It’s going to be a ‘he said, she said’ legal battle unless they get quantitative definitions.”

Louis Brichetto, an Oakdale-area grower, said of committee developments, “Some of it is good, some is overreaching.” He likes the idea of a countywide document that might be used to satisfy state environmental requirements, relieving individuals in some cases from conducting expensive studies for each well application.

Larry Byrd, an east-side cattleman and chairman of the Modesto Irrigation District board, said he has shared data from his wells and encourages others to do likewise. When released publicly, the information is presented as coming from land blocks of one square mile, without precise location and without names and parcel numbers, he noted.

“I can see why a rancher would be leery to give (information),” Byrd said. “But for the good of the community, we ought to say how much we’re pumping and how deep and large the well is. That information is real important so we can move forward with this. The more we engage, the more we keep the state out of our backyard.”

Withrow agreed, saying, “Everyone can see the writing on the wall, so pick your poison; if we don’t do this thing, the state’s going to do it.”

This article originally appeared in the Modesto Bee on August 1, 2015. To see more stories in the Bee’s ongoing coverage of the California drought, go to http://www.modbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/.

Top image: Water is pumped into a canal southeast of Pelandale Avenue and Tully Road in Modesto in late July. Photo by Deke Farrow, The Modesto Bee

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