To see the detrimental impacts of groundwater pumping and exports, one doesn’t have to travel far.
The Eastside Bypass in Madera County, not far from the Merced County line, has become a sinking pocket of land – dropping about 5 feet in 10 years.
It’s called subsidence, and it’s a consequence of people sucking groundwater from deeper levels. What’s happening in Madera County isn’t unique – Merced County also has subsidence issues. But unlike Madera County, Merced didn’t have regulations prohibiting groundwater mining, exports or transfers – and county supervisors are working on changing that.
Another draft of Merced County’s groundwater ordinance was released this week, and it contains several key changes, including a new requirement for those who are “exempt” from the ordinance’s permitting process.
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Prompted by a proposal from two Los Banos landowners last year to sell groundwater to Stanislaus County, the supervisors began looking at protecting and monitoring groundwater resources amid one of the worst droughts in recent history.
The ordinance, which has been under review since October, manages groundwater mining and exports through a permitting process. Drilling a new well would also require a permit. The process allows county staff to review each project individually to evaluate its potential impacts.
It’s a big change for the 330 Merced County landowners within the San Luis Canal Co., said general manager Chase Hurley. His agency provides water to 45,000 acres of agricultural land between Dos Palos and Los Banos.
“If they want to put in a private well, they’ll have to go to Merced County and prove the new well doesn’t have a negative impact on subsidence or transferring of water outside the basin,” Hurley said.
But Hurley said he supports the ordinance and has participated in all of Merced County’s water meetings. If nothing is done, subsidence would get worse and land could be flooded during wet years, based on the local impacts to the Eastside Bypass.
Merced County’s proposed ordinance establishes some exemptions to the permitting process: wells delivering 2 acre-feet of groundwater or less per year, groundwater recharge efforts and water transfers between two neighboring properties, among others. One change introduced this week requires those who are exempt to fill out an application to verify their status, said County Executive Officer Jim Brown.
Other changes included adding an exemption for moving groundwater in areas where too much water damages crops and establishing a process for collecting data from residents on water use.
People drilling new wells would be required to install a meter and report their water use to the county. The county won’t collect similar data for existing wells, Brown said, because it doesn’t have the staffing or resources. However, state legislation may require everyone to report water use in the future.
A list of estimated well permit costs was also released this week. Drilling a new domestic well will remain $765. Larger wells, including agricultural and industrial, will range from $615 to $1,205 because they require more review from staff. Some projects will require environmental review based on the California Environmental Quality Act, ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, county documents said.
Applicants will be responsible for those costs, officials confirmed. The law sets parameters on which projects might require CEQA review, but each project will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The fees released this week are “conservative” and could change, Brown warned. As leaders figure out the county’s actual staff costs in the next year, fees will likely go up.
In related action, the supervisors on Tuesday approved a $75,000 increase to an existing contract with a hydrology and engineering firm to help review permit applications and exemptions. The contract with RMC Water and Environment will run through June 30.