Merced County supervisors decide to write letter questioning groundwater sale

Anthea Hansen, Del Puerto Water District general manager, answers questions from Supervisor Diedre Kelsey at the County Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.
Anthea Hansen, Del Puerto Water District general manager, answers questions from Supervisor Diedre Kelsey at the County Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. cwinterfeldt@mercedsunstar.com

The fight for water during the drought pitted Merced County farmers from opposite sides of the county against one another in an emotional and lengthy Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

At issue was a controversial contract allowing two private landowners in Merced County to sell up to 23,000-acre feet of groundwater to Stanislaus County.

In a unanimous decision, the supervisors voted to send a comment letter to the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – the agency proposing the water transfer – outlining “serious questions” about the proposal.

The action doesn’t halt the groundwater sale, but the federal agency must issue a response to the county’s questions before it can move forward.

The two private landowners, Steve Sloan of 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and Stephen Smith of SHS Family Limited Partnership, were present for the meeting Tuesday. Neither expressed surprise over the board’s decision.

“It went about exactly how I thought it was going to go,” Sloan said after the meeting. “I’m disappointed with the rhetoric about the county initiating a groundwater ordinance because we all rely on the free movement of water around the state.”

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.

If approved, the contract calls for 13 wells to be pumped for eight months to extract an estimated 22,000 gallons of groundwater per minute. The water would be sold to the Del Puerto Water District and Patterson Irrigation District.

Sloan said the owners would be paid $500 to $600 per acre-foot of water, potentially fetching $46 million over the life of the four-year contract. The contract is two years but allows an extension for another two years.

Smith said the owners expected to begin pumping the wells June 1. He said the project includes monitoring related to subsidence and water-quality issues.

Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, said some of the transferred water would come back to Merced County because the district services 9,000 acres on the west side. The district encompasses 45,000 acres of agricultural land, mostly in Stanislaus County.

Hansen urged the Board of Supervisors to support the project Tuesday, saying farmers on the west side of Merced County are struggling to keep their crops alive. “I don’t have time to wait for policy direction,” she said. “We need this water to be moving in the summer months to keep the trees alive.”

A Gustine farmer echoed Hansen’s sense of urgency and made a plea for west side farmers.

“I’m just like the rest of you here, trying to make a living,” said Ken Tucker. “We are in a serious situation over there, and we have no other water sources. I’m here as a farmer today begging for a little bit of water to keep my trees alive.”

But dozens of farmers from other parts of Merced County urged the supervisors to consider the impacts to their operations, especially during one of the driest years on record.

“I really feel for you, but we’ve got big problems in our area, too,” said Anthony Roggero. “I just want to let you know, we’ve got big issues. We may go dry, too.”

Mike Gallo, who runs a farming operation in Atwater, said he has been hit hard by the drought. Gallo said he owns water wells within 5 miles of the project area. “Wells are already going dry, and we haven’t even hit the summer yet,” Gallo said.

“What’s going to happen a couple months from now? And what’s going to happen when you take this much water out of the aquifer?” he asked.

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. A 30-day comment period is typically allowed, but County Counsel James Fincher said the agency shortened it to 15 days because of the drought.

Farmers and stakeholders Tuesday pushed for more studies to address impacts from what’s being called one of the largest private water sales.

“We are asking the board to request a full environmental review,” said Merced County Farm Bureau Executive Director Amanda Carvajal. “There are so many holes in this report. It shows how it will help the Newman and Patterson area, but it doesn’t address what will happen here.”

County supervisors agreed that more detailed environmental studies are necessary to fully understand the impacts on Merced County farmers and the county’s groundwater supply.

“I think it’s the Board of Supervisors’ responsibility to look at the whole county and see if there are environmental impacts,” said District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey.

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo echoed the sentiment. “I agree with my colleagues that we need more information here to find out all the details of this,” he said. “I was notified Thursday evening, and my phone has been ringing off the hook.”

With the exception of District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion, remaining supervisors said they had no idea about the potential groundwater sale until late last week. County officials were able to extend the proposal’s comment period by 24 hours to allow time to provide feedback.

County officials submitted a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation by the end of the day Tuesday. A response is expected within a few weeks, officials said.