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Farm Water Agencies Balk at Aquifer Studies

MODESTO BEE: Despite milestones achieved by Stanislaus County’s Water Advisory Committee, three irrigation districts don’t want to participate in new studies to assess the condition of area groundwater. The county hopes to win over those still dragging their feet.

Written by Garth Stapley, Modesto Bee Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Stanislaus County’s three largest water districts have failed to get squarely behind county leaders’ latest idea for addressing groundwater problems.

The county is asking state water officials for hefty grants to help pay for expensive groundwater studies. Leaders asked the county’s nine cities, various water agencies and other entities to send support letters. They received several, but got a cold shoulder from the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts.

MID and TID think that “years of good work” done by them and other water agencies should serve as a starting point for groundwater policy, rather than the county charting a new course, the districts’ general managers wrote in a reply to the county’s request for support.

OID is more concerned with the money that all partners would be asked to contribute toward studies to attract matching state grants. An OID report questions why water districts should pay anything because their river water replenishes aquifers while cities’ pumping strains them.

“This grant application is a county program. Why isn’t the county funding its own program?” reads the report.

That kind of response reminds county Supervisor Terry Withrow of the resistance water agencies put up when the county formed its Water Advisory Committee in early 2014.

“People in silos want to be sure we’re not treading on their ground,” Withrow said. “Every now and then, the ‘me, me, me’ [refrain] rears its ugly head.”

The county hopes to land two state grants: One would provide $250,000 toward the $585,000 total cost of an environmental impact report on a new county well-permitting process. It’s meant to help “counties with stressed basins.”

But among the eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley, Stanislaus is the only one with basins that are not considered at high risk of “critical overdraft,” or sucking out groundwater at alarming rates, perhaps leading to land-sinking subsidence. In a December 8 letter declining to support the county’s grant application, MID and TID credit “our sustainable management practices.” MID, for example, has spared Modesto from pumping millions of gallons each year by turning Tuolumne River water into tap water, and TID hopes to do the same for Turlock, Ceres and south Modesto.

If state officials approve the application, local cities, water agencies and businesses would be asked to cover the remaining cost. “OID is not in a position to meet the funding needs of a county program … that serves no direct benefit to OID,” its staff report says, adding: “The first burden to pay should come from those who are contributing to the problem.”

City leaders in Modesto, Turlock, Ceres, Patterson, Newman and Riverbank sent letters of support, as did the county’s Water Advisory Committee, several small agencies and the Eastside Water District, which is exploring a recharge project of its own. Not lining up behind the grant application were the large water districts and east side cities of Oakdale, Waterford and Hughson.

The second application, which has yet to be submitted, would pay a consultant about $350,000 to study places best suited for groundwater recharge basins to capture stormwater that otherwise runs down rivers to the ocean.

“It’s a lot of money, but not if you divide it by 16 or 20 partners,” said Keith Boggs, county assistant executive officer.

To win and shore up support, county leaders this week will start paying visits to local agencies. OID General Manager Steve Knell said the county won’t get to him and OID board Chairman Steve Webb until February.

The OID board on Tuesday unanimously agreed to lend moral but not financial support.

Withrow said he hopes fears will subside as the county explains things in person.

“I appreciate their concerns, but we’re all in this together,” he said Tuesday. “Part of the grant process is making sure this benefits everyone. Sometimes we have to help them see the bigger picture.”

For more coverage of the California drought and water issues, please visit the Modesto Bee.

Top image: Turlock Irrigation District engineer Matt Hazen looks out at the work being done on a new, small reservoir in January beside the Highline Canal in Hilmar. The district is one of three in the region that does not support a collaborative application for state grants to study groundwater conditions. (Andy Alfaro, Modesto Bee)

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