Water sale creates winners, losers

May 26, 2014 

If you want to put a human face on California’s epic drought, Ken Tucker’s will do. The Central Valley farmer has 400 acres of thirsty almond trees that are in real danger of dying.

Tucker stood before the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday pleading with the five officials and his fellow farmers not to try to stop a controversial water transfer deal that will ship groundwater from Merced County across the county line north to farmers in Stanislaus County’s Del Puerto Water District.

“I’m here as a farmer today begging for a little water just to keep my trees alive. I’m hoping that the board will see that we need help, and we tried to look at other sources and we cannot find any other water,” he said.

At that point, Tucker paused and turned to face the sea of plaid shirts and jeans in the audience, his voice emotional and face pained. “I’m just like the rest of you here, trying to make a living,” he said. “I can’t find any other water sources, and I’m asking for a little help.”

Farmers in Merced County are sympathetic, to a point. They’ve got their own worries: reduced water deliveries; wells going dry and the land sinking as groundwater is sucked out.

Now this: Two Merced County landowners are about to get very rich by selling the water right out from under them to farmers in Del Puerto Water District, which serves 45,000 acres – including Tucker’s 400.

I was at the supervisors meeting last week because this particular deal stinks even to a non-water expert. Not since “Chinatown” did a water grab seem so clear-cut. How could one person or, in this case two, stick straws in the ground, suck up an increasingly precious resource, and then sell it at fabulous profit to non-locals?

The answer is as simple as it is appalling: Because they can.

Unlike every other dry Western state, California doesn’t have rules for groundwater. If you own the property above, it’s pretty much yours to use. Other counties and regions, particularly in Southern California, have rules for sustainably managing groundwater basins. Others are struggling to establish rules. Stanislaus County, for example, has an ordinance that severely restricts the transfer of water out of the county.

Merced does not.

That fact is a godsend to Del Puerto Water District, which relies solely on surface water – rivers, dams, lakes – said general manager Anthea Hansen. This year, the district’s allocation from the Central Valley Project is zero. The district and its farmers are pretty desperate for water, especially those who have recently planted almond trees. Without water, investments will be lost.

Enter Steve Sloan of 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and Stephen Smith of SHS Family Limited Partnership, two Merced County landowners with 13 wells pumping plenty of water. They are negotiating with Del Puerto to sell up to 23,000 acre-feet a year, for two years – with a possible two-year extension. They won’t confirm the terms of the deal, since it’s still being worked out, but Sloan did concede it would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 to $600 an acre-foot. At a minimum, that’s $23 million, but could be as much as $55 million.

The wider world might never had heard this tale if not for how the water must be moved.

The water will be sent down the San Joaquin River and through the Delta-Mendota Canal about 32 miles. There, Del Puerto will collect some the water for its users while storing the rest in San Luis Reservoir. Because the arrangement needs approval from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (motto: “Managing Water in the West”), it came to light. As a federal agency, the Bureau is required to look at environmental impacts and ask for public comments. The comment period ended Monday.

Merced County Farm Bureau executive director Amanda Carvajal was among the first to notice, and she notified county Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who rushed it onto the board’s agenda for last Tuesday. The Bureau granted a one-day extension of the comment period. Later, it came out that board Chairman Jerry O’Banion did know about the pending deal sometime before the meeting, but it didn’t strike him as problematic.

After a long and emotional meeting Tuesday, the board voted to send a strongly worded letter to the Bureau of Reclamation raising its concerns. That’s the best supervisors can do; the county just doesn’t have the authority to stop so-called groundwater mining. They have only slowed it down.

Sloan dismissed the hubbub after the meeting, saying he’s been selling well water for years. He has pumped twice as much as what is proposed in the Del Puerto deal and it hasn’t affected the water table so far. He notes that since his wells are shallow – just 37 feet – and fairly isolated, they haven’t hurt anyone else. The Bureau of Reclamation says shallow well pumping isn’t the cause of land subsidence.

Besides, Sloan said, the deal involves plenty of monitoring; if the operation starts to hurt neighbors, “then we stop pumping.”

Perhaps, but Supervisor Kelsey isn’t convinced. “When you pump, it comes from somewhere.”

The bureau, in the draft environmental documents for the water transfer, appears to support her worries: “additional pumping of the well field would decrease groundwater levels as well as increase movement of groundwater into the aquifer underlying the properties beyond what has occurred historically.”

Carvajal worries that this deal will set a precedent and encourage others to sell groundwater for profit, an operation some call “Digging for Dollars.”

At the prices 4-S Ranc Partners are getting, who could blame them? It seems a better bet than farming.

Though the county ultimately has no say over this deal, it did a public service by bringing the water transfer to light. Not just to get buy-in on water management plans, but to offer the rest of us a crystal-clear illustration of how the failure to regulate the state’s groundwater allows exploitation by a few and possible injury to many. It’s a scenario being played out in far too many California counties.

Garza is the deputy editor of the Sacramento Bee’s Opinion pages; she attended Tuesday’s Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service