Violation issued to Merced County property owner behind controversial groundwater sale

05/23/2014 9:55 PM

05/24/2014 8:59 PM

One of the two private landowners behind a controversial groundwater sale received a notice of violation from state inspectors after allegedly making modifications to a levee on his property, state officials confirmed Friday.

Steve Sloan was issued the notice by a state Department of Water Resources inspector, who notified the Lower San Joaquin Levee District and Central Valley Flood Protection Board. Sloan failed to obtain an encroachment permit before making alterations to the levee, said the board’s chief engineer, Len Marino.

“Anytime you make an alteration to the levee, you have to go through the board for a permit, and that has not happened,” Marino said. “I’m just concerned with the impacts of the modifications made to the levee and how he went about doing it.”

Sloan is identified as an owner of 4-S Ranch Partners, LLC, one of two entities behind a proposal to sell up to 23,000 acre-feet of groundwater to Stanislaus County. The project would pump water out of 13 Merced County wells to be sold to the Del Puerto Water District and Patterson Irrigation District.

In a previous interview with the Sun-Star, Sloan said the owners would be paid $500 to $600 per acre-foot of water, potentially fetching $46 million over the life of the four-year contract. The contract is for two years but allows an extension for another two years.

The water would be moved either through the San Joaquin River or the East Side Bypass into the Bureau of Reclamation’s San Luis Reservoir. From there, the Del Puerto Water District in western Stanislaus County would take it out.

To deliver water to the East Side Bypass, Marino said, Sloan inserted a small water pipe through the levee’s drain pipe. “He’s using that as a conduit to penetrate through the levee and deliver his water to the East Side Bypass,” Marino said. “The drain pipe is now open on both sides and subjects the land to flooding if the water in the bypass rises.”

It’s unclear if the levee has been damaged, Marino said, which would subject Sloan to more serious violations.

When reached for comment Friday, Sloan denied making any modifications to the levee or pipelines on his property. “There have been no infrastructure changes to the levee,” he said. “The ground is exactly how it was before – it’s a cattle ranch.”

The second private landowner behind the groundwater sale, Stephen Smith of SHS Family Limited Partnership, said Friday he has not received a violation notice or been contacted by any agencies.

Marino said the agency will begin enforcement activity next week. The next step is sending a notice of violation letter to Sloan. Enforcement can escalate to issuing a cease-and-desist order. Marino said 90 percent of property owners with similar violations voluntarily comply, but if the issue is not resolved, it can lead to the possibility of fines and liens on the property.

“We’re hoping we don’t have to go the whole nine yards. We’re hoping we can get voluntary compliance and get him to fill out an encroachment permit,” Marino said. “We always try to work it out peacefully and amicably, and we don’t like to get heavy-handed unless we have to.”

Sloan might also find himself in hot water with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of a possible violation of the conservation easement on his property, which protects the environmental habitat.

“I believe that what he is trying to do is build the infrastructure to run the wells, pipe it into the bypass to flow down to the San Joaquin River,” said Refuge Manager Kim Forrest. “We have a conservation easement on it where he is not supposed to be doing any ground-disturbing activity, such as building pipelines, and he did not get our approval.”

Owners of properties that have a conservation easement usually must notify the agency prior to making alterations. Forrest said the agency usually works with landowners to remediate the damage, but it is still gathering information about Sloan’s situation.

“We’ll be talking about it,” she said. “Our jurisdiction is they damaged native land having without our permission.”

The Merced County Board of Supervisors this week voted to send a comment letter to the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency proposing the water transfer, questioning the project’s environmental report finding of no significant impacts.

The May 20 letter questioned affects on neighboring water wells, asked if the groundwater extraction is sustainable and about plans to replenish the groundwater. The bureau’s comment period was extended to May 30, and the county submitted an addendum to its letter outlining concerns of “potential detrimental impacts” to nearby communities.

Other than acknowledging receipt of the letters, county officials said Friday there has been no response from the federal agency.

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