Federal agency determines Merced County groundwater sale has ‘no significant impact’

07/31/2014 12:52 PM

07/31/2014 11:39 PM

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Thursday approved the environmental report for a multimillion-dollar proposal to allow the transfer and sale of Merced County groundwater to buyers in Stanislaus County.

The federal agency issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact” report, which occurs when an environmental analysis determines that a project has no major impacts on the quality of the environment.

That step concludes the federal environmental review process and authorizes the project to move forward to the contracting stage. The Bureau of Reclamation was involved because the Delta-Mendota Canal will be used to transfer the water pumped out of the ground in Merced County to a pair of Stanislaus County water agencies.

“We get lots of different types of water requests throughout the year for transfers such as this one,” said Rain Emerson, supervisory natural resources specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation’s South-Central California office. “A lot of the projects coming to us are drought-related in terms of getting water to contractors.”

According to the proposal, two Merced County landowners will pump up to 13,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year to sell to the Del Puerto Water District and the Patterson Irrigation District over the next two years.

The landowners are Steve Sloan of 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and Stephen Smith of SHS Family LP. The contract is two years without the option for an extension.

In a previous Merced Sun-Star story, Sloan said the owners would be paid $500 to $600 per acre-foot of water, potentially fetching millions of dollars over the life of the contract.

Their proposal was discussed by the Merced County Board of Supervisors in May, which resulted in the board issuing a letter to the bureau questioning the sale. The supervisors are also considering an ordinance to regulate groundwater transfers.

Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, said the project was scaled back because of concerns from local growers that pumping groundwater and moving it out of Merced County, especially during a drought year, would reduce the supply of nearby wells.

The original proposal allowed for up to 23,000 acre-feet of groundwater to be pumped annually for two years, with the option of renewing the contract another two years. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover 1 acre 1 foot deep.

Hansen said the water is desperately needed to keep permanent crops alive within the district. Some of the water will stay in Merced County, she added, because Del Puerto services about 9,000 acres of agricultural land near Gustine and Santa Nella.

The quantity of water being transferred to Stanislaus County was “greatly reduced” from the original proposal, Hansen said, and won’t exceed what has been historically pumped from the 14 wells on Sloan and Smith’s properties.

Bureau officials said limiting the water amount so it doesn’t exceed what’s been pumped in the past was a factor in the agency’s approval.

“Based on how the project was scaled back and the analysis of how the (groundwater) pumping on the ranches won’t change from what’s been done already, there weren’t any significant impacts identified to neighboring wells or adjacent landowners,” Emerson said.

Smith, one of the two owners behind the groundwater sale, said there will also be a plan to monitor issues such as water quality and subsidence. “There will be no new wells drilled, and I feel that there is a monitoring plan in place that will determine the sustainability of the groundwater pumping,” he said.

Despite the monitoring plan and assurance that pumping won’t exceed historic amounts, county Farm Bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal said the water shortage is getting more critical each day. Some domestic wells have even started drying up, she said.

Longtime farmer Bob Weimer is not convinced the groundwater pumping won’t adversely affect neighboring growers. “It puts more pressure on the neighboring farmers because it’s pulling more water,” said Weimer, who grows sweet potatoes, peaches, walnuts and almonds. “It puts a strain on the whole aquifer.”

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.

The Board of Supervisors this week approved a $50,000 contract with a law firm, Rossmann and Moore LLP, to assist with putting together an ordinance that would regulate water transfers and sales.

The issue was first brought to the board’s attention in May, with supervisors putting an emergency item on the May 20 meeting agenda to discuss it. The meeting was attended by dozens of Merced County farmers who criticized the groundwater sale, while a handful said it would benefit them.

The law firm will also help with drafting a long-term groundwater management plan, said District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh, who is on the county’s water committee.

“The Legislature is talking about mandating local efforts on groundwater management,” Walsh said. “We’re at the point of gathering information, and I think their expertise in water law will be very useful to us.”

It’s unclear when the groundwater pumping from the Sloan and Smith properties will begin. Last month, Sloan was issued a notice of violation from the Central Valley Flood Protection Board for making modifications to a levee on his property without obtaining an encroachment permit.

Sloan, who did not return calls for comment Thursday, apparently rectified the situation by removing pipes he had put into the levee, according to officials.

“As far as I have been told, he did comply and remove the pipes, although we do not have confirmation of that yet,” said Leslie Gallagher, the board’s acting executive officer and general counsel. “Inspectors are going out next week to confirm.”

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