Nobody was jumping for joy Tuesday as the Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted Merced County’s groundwater ordinance, which is intended to regulate new wells.
The supervisors spoke somberly about the state’s water problems, while some farmers said the regulations are a necessary evil. Still other farmers said the regulations do not go far enough to help California’s dire water shortage as the state endures the fourth year of a drought.
The new ordinance is the first of its kind for Merced County. It regulates groundwater transfers outside county basins through a permitting process, allowing county officials to scrutinize each project to determine potential impacts on groundwater resources.
It also requires people who want to build a new well, those who want to export water from existing wells or those who want to increase pumping activities to apply for a permit.
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During the meeting, the supervisors approved a clause to clarify that the ordinance does not affect existing wells. Jim Brown, the county’s executive officer, said replacement and backup wells would receive the same scrutiny as new wells.
Livingston farmer John Mitchell said the ordinance should include the restriction of existing wells, because they are the ones causing water levels in underground aquifers to sink. “It’s the existing wells that have brought us to this meeting,” he said.
Another man at the meeting said without restrictions on existing wells, the supervisors were “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The U.S. Geological Survey in 2013 showed that so much water is being pumped out of the ground in the region that the land is sagging. The process – called subsidence – could damage roads, dams, railroads, pipes and bridges. An area near El Nido has been dropping at a rate of a foot per year, while the land closer to Merced is falling at about half an inch per year.
Researchers warned that the sinking area is spreading. Experts have also said that once aquifers collapse, they cannot be refilled with water.
Other farmers at the meeting said the ordinance is a good start toward water sustainability in the county. Bob Weimer, an Atwater farmer, said it’s important to strike a balance between protecting water and allowing the agriculture industry to thrive.
“It’s been difficult to achieve, but we have something that we can start to work with,” he said about the ordinance.
Under the ordinance, new well owners will be required to install a metering device to report water usage to the county. An online self-reporting tool is being designed to make the process easier for residents, county administrators said. Reporting water usage will soon be a requirement for all water wells under new state legislation.
Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she was “not happy” to have to pass an ordinance. “It looks like times have changed, and we’re going to have to change with it,” she said.
The next step will be for the county and other regional leaders to develop a Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which will be required throughout the state by June 30, 2017. Each agency, which is defined by its water basin, will have to develop a plan for sustainable water use.
Supervisor John Pedrozo noted the potential difficulties the county will be facing as it enters its fourth dry year. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you it scares the hell out of me,” he said.
The ordinance goes into effect 30 days from Tuesday.