Local officials agreed Thursday that carrying out California’s new groundwater law will be a challenge, but it’s better than the alternative – letting the state impose the rules.
Hosted by Stanislaus County and the Turlock Irrigation District, experts met near Modesto to talk about how to document what is happening in the aquifers and to ensure they are reliable sources for farms and cities well into the future.
The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, allows irrigation districts and other local entities to carry out the measures. If they fail to do so, the state could step in.
“Now local control is granted, and you’re all here to try to figure it out,” said Kate Williams, program manager for the California Water Foundation in Sacramento. It was among the sponsors of the meeting, held at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center, off Crows Landing Road.
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Participants said local control would ensure that specific water conditions are addressed and the concerns of farmers, city dwellers and other interests are heard.
“What we’ve realized is that the only way this happens is from the grass roots up,” said Walt Ward, water resources manager for Stanislaus County.
The law requires that plans be drafted on how groundwater can be sustainably used. Temporary overdraft during a drought is allowed, but “significant” damage is not. That can include loss of water volume, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and high drilling and pumping costs.
A plan is required for each groundwater “subbasin.” Those deemed to be “critically overdrafted” need it by January 2020. Those with less urgency get two more years. The law mandates that the aquifers be sustainable within 20 years of plan adoption.
Stanislaus County contains all or part of four subbasins, bounded generally by rivers. The state has 515 in all. A local entity can manage one or more.
The county’s effort is building on about 20 years of data collected by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and other parties. The districts contend that flood irrigation, which critics regard as wasteful, has helped to recharge groundwater. They warn that this benefit would be much less if the state goes through with a proposal to increase rivers flows for fish at the expense of farms.
The cost of drafting and carrying out the plans is not known, experts said, but they could qualify for grants from the water bond issue approved by state voters in November.
The planning can take into account past efforts to boost groundwater. Among them is the treatment plant completed in 1995 to provide Tuolumne River water to Modesto and a few other communities, supplementing their wells.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve seen groundwater levels in the city of Modesto rise 40 feet,” said John Davids, irrigation operations manager for MID. A similar plant is being studied for Turlock, Ceres and south Modesto, supplied by TID river water.
The meeting was co-sponsored by the Association of California Water Agencies, the Rural County Representatives of California and the California State Association of Counties.
“It’s complicated for those of us who are in the middle of it,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, president of CSAC. “We don’t have all the answers, but we will continue to strive for the answers.”
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.