Merced supervisors move forward on groundwater ordinance

Merced County’s first ordinance regulating out-of-county groundwater transfers will have its first reading and possible adoption early next month, county supervisors decided Tuesday.

The draft ordinance, presented at two previous Board of Supervisors meetings, is the county’s first attempt at overseeing groundwater mining and exports out of the area’s basin. It controls such groundwater transfers through a permitting process – allowing county officials to scrutinize each water transport individually to determine potential impacts to the county’s groundwater resources.

The board voted 4-1 Tuesday to set the ordinance’s first reading for Dec. 9, with a second reading and possible adoption tentatively set for Dec. 16. Board Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he wants more details on the implementation of the new ordinance.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposed ordinance at both December meetings. If approved on Dec. 16, the ordinance would go into effect 30 days later.

Merced County officials spent the last six months drafting the ordinance with input from two stakeholder groups and a host of water experts. Though officials stressed the ordinance is an “evolutionary process” – with potential changes prompted by new state water legislation – it prohibits two major ways of transferring groundwater without a permit: exports and mining.

Exportation is pumping groundwater and sending it outside the county. Groundwater mining is extracting groundwater from one area, potentially impacting the aquifer, neighboring wells and leading to subsidence.

The ordinance would also require a permit for a new well in an area that’s never pumped groundwater before.

Obtaining a permit would be a multi-step procedure, similar to the county’s current process for constructing a new well, but asking more detailed questions. Some projects might be approved immediately, such as replacing a well without increasing groundwater use, while others would require more detailed analysis, such as meetings with county staff and environmental studies.

Applicants would pay those costs, though a fee structure has not yet been created.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel when we already take applications for permits for construction of wells,” said County Executive Officer Jim Brown during the meeting.

The ordinance also outlines a handful of exemptions from the permitting process. Some of those exceptions are public water agencies, wells delivering 2 acre-feet of groundwater or less per year, groundwater recharge efforts, and approved federal, state and county public works projects.

County officials on Tuesday also discussed the appeals process for permits that get denied, recommending the Board of Supervisors ultimately decide the appeals. But District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey pushed to have independent experts handle appeals, saying it would prevent situations where political pressure is placed on supervisors to approve certain projects.

The supervisors agreed to insert language into the ordinance that says an expert will assist with appeals.

O’Banion said during the meeting other counties “haphazardly” adopted groundwater ordinances without having all the details, leading to issues later on. He said he wants to see a detailed implementation plan before adopting the ordinance.

But a water expert hired by the county said adopting the ordinance is the first step, and changes can be made later on.

“You have to have the framework before you can build in all the other details,” said Sarge Green, project director for the California Water Institute at Fresno State University. “It needs to be adopted first to get it into place, and changes can be made as necessary.

“The core idea is to make sure the county has a place at the table to make sure people who pump groundwater are doing it in a sustainable way,” he said.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.