June 5, 2014

Water district approves Merced County groundwater sale

A scaled-back version of a controversial project to sell groundwater out of Merced County was unanimously approved by Del Puerto Water District board members this week – one of the two Stanislaus County water districts benefitting from the multi-million dollar sale.

A scaled-back version of a controversial project to sell groundwater out of Merced County was unanimously approved by Del Puerto Water District board members this week – one of the two Stanislaus County water districts benefiting from the multimillion-dollar sale.

Meanwhile, state officials issued a violation letter to one of the two property owners behind the groundwater sale – Los Banos resident Steve Sloan – for failing to obtain an encroachment permit before making alterations to a levee on his property.

Calling it a “pilot project,” the revised proposal was approved by Del Puerto’s board of directors during a special meeting Wednesday. The proposal calls for up to 26,000 acre-feet of groundwater to be sold to the Del Puerto Water District and the Patterson Irrigation District over two years, but does not allow an extension of the contract.

The water will be pumped from 14 Merced County wells belonging to two private landowners, Sloan of 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and Stephen Smith of SHS Family Limited Partnership.

The original proposal would transfer up to 23,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year for two years, but allowed an extension for another two years. Sloan told the Merced Sun-Star that the owners would be paid $500 to $600 per acre-foot of water, potentially fetching millions of dollars over the life of the contract.

The action Wednesday by the Del Puerto Water District board of directors moves the water transfer one step forward, but it still requires approval by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Merced County Board of Supervisors, Merced County Farm Bureau and Merced Irrigation District all sent letters to the federal agency questioning the proposal’s impact on Merced County farmers, especially during a drought year.

The Del Puerto Water District issued responses to each letter, and those were included in its meeting packet. No response has been received from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation thus far.

Merced County Farm Bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal said classifying the groundwater transfer as a “pilot project” allows the Del Puerto Water District to avoid a full environmental review of the project. Carvajal and others pushed for environmental studies to analyze the impact of pumping water out of the county.

“It means they believe they don’t need to do any environmental reviews,” Carvajal said. “I just feel like they are trying to figure out a way to make it happen, and it’s a little bit frustrating because everyone sees the flaws. They are just trying to fit a square in a circle and it’s not working.”

Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, did not return multiple calls for comment. Hansen previously said the water district desperately needs the water for growers on Merced County’s West Side. The district encompasses 45,000 acres of agricultural land, mostly in Stanislaus County, but services 9,000 acres on the west side of Merced County.

Although the project scales back the amount of water being sold, one longtime Merced County farmer said the majority of growers are still very upset. “Growers throughout Merced County are scrambling for water and we have to protect what we have here,” said Bob Weimer, who grows sweet potatoes, peaches, walnuts and almonds.

Weimer said some of the Merced County wells that will be pumped are deeper than 300 feet – forcing water to be pulled from a deeper aquifer – and reducing the water supply of nearby wells.

“What that does is create a sphere of influence, which means they start to pull water from a neighboring well,” Weimer explained. “Now the neighbor’s well is being impacted.”

Weimer said Merced County supervisors didn’t do enough to stop the water transfer. The 68-year-old farmer feared the water sale could lead to more groundwater transfers.

Merced County does not have an ordinance that prohibits sending groundwater out of the county, often referred to as groundwater mining. San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera and Fresno counties all have some form of groundwater regulation.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. This is a result of inaction by our board of supervisors to deal with water issues,” Weimer said. “This opens the door for other people to start pumping water for sale, whether it’s 1 acre-foot or 13,000 acre-feet.”

Merced County supervisors discussed a countywide water ordinance during a board meeting Tuesday. The board voted to place an item on each agenda about the issue, set a meeting with stakeholders and have staff explore two options to regulate water exports – either a land use permitting process or a groundwater ordinance.

While the supervisors look at options for regulating water transfers, the state Central Valley Flood Protection Board sent a violation letter to Sloan after he made alterations to a levee on his property. According to the letter obtained by the Merced Sun-Star, Sloan installed an 18-inch pipe to an existing pipe to export water.

“It’s an ongoing investigation and we want to get the matter resolved,” said the board’s chief engineer, Len Marino. The state agency gave Sloan until June 13 to submit a written plan and schedule to rectify the issue.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also looking at a possible violation of a conservation easement on Sloan’s property, which protects the environmental habitat against ground-disturbing activity such as pipeline-building.

“We’re still in the process of looking into the issue,” said Jack Sparks, outdoor recreation planner at the San Luis Wildlife Refuge Complex.

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