Merced supervisors consider sale of groundwater

The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider an emergency item dealing with the potential sale of 23,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Merced County to two water districts in Stanislaus County. The contract calls for the same amount each year for four years.

The comment period about the proposal was extended 24 hours to allow the Merced County supervisors and the public time to provide feedback. It was originally set to end Monday.

The four-year contract being proposed through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would allow two private landowners within Merced County to sell the water to the Del Puerto Water District and Patterson Irrigation District.

Supervisors will discuss the issue during Tuesday’s board meeting and provide staff with direction on how to respond.

The private landowners are identified as 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and SHS Family Limited Partnership. The address of record for 4-S Ranch Partners is 264 I St. in Los Banos, according to the California secretary of state. That address is linked to Steve Sloan, owner of Sloan Realty, according to public records.

Sloan served as a Merced County planning commissioner from December 1988 to December 2008. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Public records indicate SHS Family Limited Partnership is linked to 500 South Tully Road, the address of Turlock Fruit Co. Inc. Owner Don Smith did not return calls for comment. An assistant from the company told the Sun-Star on Monday that Steve Smith, Don’s son, is the owner of SHS Family Limited Partnership. Steve Smith could not be reached for comment.

If the contract is approved, roughly 100,000 acre-feet of groundwater would be pumped from 13 wells in east Merced County over four years. The wells would be pumped 24 hours a day for eight months to extract an estimated 22,000 gallons of groundwater per minute.

Though it’s difficult to place a price tag on the water, similar water transfers on the west side of San Joaquin Valley have fetched $1,000 per acre-foot. Local growers estimate the water’s value to be no less than $500 per acre-foot, which would fetch $46 million for the private landowners over the four-year life of the contract.

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.

Merced County Farm Bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal said the deal would devastate local farmers already hit hard by a drought year.

“People are alarmed. I think everyone is a little in shock,” Carvajal said. “I’m hoping that everyone takes the time to understand the full magnitude of what the impacts might be.”

On May 5, the Bureau of Reclamation released draft environment documents about the proposal, including an Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact reports, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Carvajal said the reports were incomplete and did not fully address the detrimental impacts to Merced County.

“When you’re pulling water from this higher aquifer, especially in those large quantities, you’re pulling from other areas of Merced County,” she said. “That’s a substantial amount of water, and yet this report barely touches on it. This report lacks all data about the groundwater levels.”

Another issue with the environmental assessment is that Sloan was one of the reviewers of the report. That could be perceived as a conflict of interest, according to Bob Weimer, a longtime Merced County farmer. “He collected the water samples and provided input,” Weimer said. “If you’re doing something this major, it should be done by an independent evaluator.”

Weimer, a grower of sweet potatoes, peaches, almonds and walnuts in Livingston and Atwater, took issue with with he called the report’s lack of consideration to Merced County.

“You lose water, you lose jobs – and this study did not evaluate that for Merced County,” Weimer said. “There are no real studies on how it impacts the aquifer and how it’s going to take away from Merced County. It only talks about the improvement being made in Stanislaus County.”

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 potential groundwater sale was brought to the attention of District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey late Thursday. She requested an item be placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

If supervisors decide to issue a response, it has to be done before the end of the day – the close of the comment period.

Kelsey said she’s hoping the board can pass an emergency ordinance to stop the proposal from moving forward. “I think we need to give serious consideration to putting an emergency ordinance together tomorrow halting this project until we know what it means,” she said.

Kelsey also intends to ask if any of the other four supervisors have land that would benefit from the water sale – if they do, Kelsey said, they may not be allowed to vote on the issue.

Kelsey said she’s a little suspicious about the proposal because the board was never notified about it. “I’m absolutely stunned that a project of this magnitude would be rushed through the process without any notification,” she said, adding that she was notified by the Merced County Farm Bureau.

Weimer and other farmers plan to attend Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting to urge the board to take action against the groundwater sale.

“There are too many growers in Merced County that will be impacted, and this water sale needs to be stopped,” he said. “The growers are the ones that are going to suffer and the economy will suffer. It’s totally unacceptable and the Board of Supervisors need to deal with it head-on to make sure this doesn’t occur.”