August 19, 2014

Merced County hires expert to help draft groundwater ordinance

The topic of groundwater is a complicated one, but regulating the scarce commodity – which is as precious as liquid gold for struggling farmers in a drought year – is even tougher.

The topic of groundwater is a complicated one, but regulating the scarce commodity – which is as precious as liquid gold for struggling farmers in a drought year – is even tougher.

But that’s exactly what Merced County officials set out to do, hiring a 40-year water expert to lead the way. Last week, the county entered into a $25,000 contract with the California Water Institute at California State University, Fresno, to develop a countywide groundwater ordinance.

Sarge Green, the center’s project director, will spend the next 12 months meeting with water agencies, farmers, county officials and other stakeholders to map out a permanent plan for regulating groundwater transfers outside the county and establishing a long-term water management plan.

Green, who’s credited with drafting Stanislaus County’s groundwater ordinance, brings nearly four decades of technical expertise to the job.

Prompted by the pending sale and transfer of groundwater from two private Merced County landowners to two water districts in Stanislaus County, the Board of Supervisors started taking a critical look at protecting the county’s groundwater in May.

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.

Though an ordinance would not stop the pending sale by the two landowners, Steve Sloan and Stephen Smith, it could prohibit or regulate similar groundwater transfers in the future. If the county doesn’t manage its groundwater at the local level, Green said, it could be hit by regulations from the state.

“It’s not going to be smooth, there will be bumps in the road and some people don’t want the county to take action,” Green told the Sun-Star on Tuesday. “But if you don’t have a groundwater management plan, you better get one. If you don’t do it, the state will come in and do it for you.”

The county can’t just be the “enforcer” of groundwater regulations, Green said; it has to play a role in creating a plan to sustain groundwater. Groundwater makes up about 42 percent of water supplies in the Central Valley; statewide, it’s close to one-third.

In addition to coming off the third year of extremely dry conditions, the demand for groundwater has increased. The region’s population has doubled and more farmers are growing permanent crops such as almonds because they’re easier to export and meet a worldwide demand.

“Agriculture has changed and gone to a lot more permanent crops,” Green said. “You used to have the flexibility in dry years to idle what you grow – but you can’t do that with permanent crops.”

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo and District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh sit on the county’s water committee and provide regular updates at Board of Supervisors meetings. Last week, Pedrozo said officials met with Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, and state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, to discuss the state water bond.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved a $50,000 contract with Rossmann and Moore LLP, a law firm hired to help with drafting a long-term groundwater management plan.

Although Merced County is making progress, it’s too soon to know what the county’s groundwater ordinance will entail – whether it will prohibit all groundwater exports, tax them or regulate them through a land use permitting process – but it’s a transition that won’t happen overnight.

“It’s going to be an evergreen process,” Green said. “It took us 30 to 40 years to be in the condition we’re in. We have to figure out the best way to deal with Merced County’s groundwater issues.”


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