Groundwater woes wear on Merced County farmers

Manager of the San Felipe Ranch, Paul Sousa, 42, speaks about a groundwater pump that is temporarily out of service on the ranch, located at 4455 Lone Tree Road in Merced. The ranch has had to fallow 300 acres of land and extend water wells due to the drought and excessive pumping by neighboring ranches.
Manager of the San Felipe Ranch, Paul Sousa, 42, speaks about a groundwater pump that is temporarily out of service on the ranch, located at 4455 Lone Tree Road in Merced. The ranch has had to fallow 300 acres of land and extend water wells due to the drought and excessive pumping by neighboring ranches. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

The record drought has turned water into a commodity that some will pay any price for.

As the Merced County Board of Supervisors rushes to develop an ordinance regulating groundwater exports outside of county basins, some landowners continue pumping groundwater and transferring it elsewhere. Some are selling it for profit at the expense of other farmers whose crops are shriveling and drying up.

A Merced Sun-Star review of political campaign contributions over the past 10 years shows all five county supervisors have received massive financial support from farmers. One supervisor, Jerry O’Banion, accepted multiple financial donations from two landowners who have transferred groundwater from a county basin.

O’Banion, who has urged his colleagues not to rush the ordinance process, received campaign contributions from individuals who have moved water off their properties in the past year.

Because the county has never had regulations to monitor groundwater, it’s unclear how much water has actually left Merced County. And despite recent efforts from lawmakers to gain oversight of groundwater exports, the pumping activities of a few have left permanent damage for others.

“Where’s this water coming from? We’re going to run out,” said Paul Sousa, who manages San Felipe Ranch in Merced. “If we lost all the water to this ranch, we’d lose this ranch. No one would buy it. Once you hit the bottom there’s no more. You’re done.”

Sousa says numerous water wells from a neighbor’s land are sucking large amounts of groundwater and moving it off the property. Several neighbors, including Sousa’s father-in-law and ranch owner Billy Grissom, unsuccessfully petitioned to stop the water transaction.

The wells, which spread along a large piece of land on Dan McNamara Road in Merced, run all day, Sousa said. As a result, the San Felipe Ranch’s water tables dropped drastically, he said, and the ranch owners were forced to extend six of 12 water wells, costing thousands of dollars. The ranch, located on Lone Tree Road, grows alfalfa, corn and oats.

Public records show at least four of the wells are on unfarmed land owned by Wolfsen Land & Cattle. The water is being pumped out of the Merced subbasin, which covers eastern Merced County. That water is leaving the Wolfsen property and being transferred elsewhere. The water doesn’t appear to be supporting wildlife or farming operations.

The Wolfsen property on Dan McNamara Road is also under U.S. Fish and Wildlife easements, records show, raising questions about whether the owners received authorization to install pipelines.

Multiple calls to Wolfsen’s owners were not returned Friday.

Wolfsen Land & Cattle isn’t the only entity transferring groundwater. Merced County landowners Steve Sloan and Stephen Smith will pump up to 13,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year to sell to the Del Puerto Water District and the Patterson Irrigation District in Stanislaus County over the next two years.

If Sloan and Smith receive $500 per acre-foot of water, the sale would put $13 million in their pockets. The private water sale caught the county’s attention last year and prompted the current discussions about groundwater regulations.

County records show Sloan has made at least 17 separate financial contributions to Supervisor O’Banion since 2000. Although the amounts are small – ranging from $125 to $400 – Sloan has given money almost every year, adding up to more than $2,700. Most donations are under Sloan Enterprises or Sloan Cattle Co.

O’Banion also received two donations from the Wolfsen family in the past two years, records show, each one $125.

In an interview with the Merced Sun-Star, O’Banion said he’s known Sloan for more than 25 years, calling him a longtime supporter. He said the financial donations don’t influence his vote on the groundwater ordinance.

“I can tell you right now I’m not in the pocket of Steve Sloan, and I take offense to anyone saying that,” O’Banion said Friday. “I make my decisions based on what’s best for this county, not what’s best for one individual.”

O’Banion said he has gotten calls from farmers about the proposed ordinance, but no one has asked him to vote against it. During last week’s board meeting, O’Banion told staff the ordinance needs more work and shouldn’t be rushed. He said he wants to see more details about how the ordinance will be implemented.

The longtime supervisor also opposed Supervisor Deidre Kelsey’s suggestion to make the groundwater ordinance retroactive, applying to water transfers initiated since the beginning of 2014. O’Banion said Friday that will lead to a line of lawsuits for Merced County.

The impact of excessive groundwater pumping is devastating for the San Felipe Ranch, Grissom said. It means 300 acres of land won’t be farmed. The number of employees at the ranch was cut from 14 to 10, and the family plans on converting to growing tomatoes, which require less water.

Ranch owner Grissom publicly questioned supervisors last week about why he’s paying $180,000 a year in property taxes on land he can’t farm. The Hilmar resident pushed the board to move forward with the ordinance, which has been under development since May. Otherwise, he said, farmers will go out of business and the economy will suffer.

“If farmers can’t work, we can’t pay our property taxes,” Grissom said after last week’s board meeting. “They’re afraid of getting sued, but they should man up and fight it. They need to be looking out for us – the taxpayers.”

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