Water: Cities, agriculture compete for precious, dwindling resource

On a scorching hot day, in the midst of a summer drought, thirsty sweet potatoes drink up the water from an irrigation system on a sweet potatoe farm in Livingston last August.
SUN-STAR FILE PHOTO BY LISA JAMES On a scorching hot day, in the midst of a summer drought, thirsty sweet potatoes drink up the water from an irrigation system on a sweet potatoe farm in Livingston last August.

Draw a tall cool glass of water from the tap anywhere in this county, and you'll be drinking water that came out of the ground.

For cities and farms alike, most water comes from one source -- wells. Much of the water Merced County uses comes from a common groundwater basin pumped by thousands of wells that, for the last 30 years, have been sucking down that resource.

The communal depletion has taken a toll on the basin. In some areas of the county, wells are drying up.

For most of the county's history, each year the bucket of water the county drinks from has been replenished with every winter's rains. But a complex nexus of growth, drought and failure to plan may be changing the calculus of water use in California and Merced County.

Ever-expanding cities in Merced County -- still minor users in the broader picture -- are increasingly competing for water with farmers and the environment. This urban-rural-ecological division wouldn't be as much of an issue if climate change wasn't bearing down on the age-old weather pattern people have come to expect.

Less rain in the future will mean less water for more people, crops and local ecosystems.

In preparation for this looming shift, state and federal authorities are trying to lessen the effects of both climate change and its human causes.

But local land use, development and their impacts on water planning comprise another issue. Today, a collection of interests compete over the same sources of water. The success or failure of local preparations for the impending water crisis will make all the difference.

Some contend that unless cities,the county, water providers and farmers come together and plan intelligently for the future, the days to come will be ugly. If each local entity continues as before without regard to its neighbors, the basin may fall into legal infighting, governing water use through the courts -- or worse.

One alternative is to form an elected body that governs collective resources. A body that may fundamentally alter the pattern of development and governance in the county -- with limits.

And because water under the ground knows no jurisdictions, the extreme solution might be a super agency with power over all water resources in the state. That is a solution few local governments would be happy with.

"Everyone will have to make compromises in order for all of us to survive," said Hicham Eltal, the chairman of an outfit that may be the future of water planning in Merced County -- MAGPI (Merced Area Groundwater Pool Interests). He's now a senior official of the Merced Irrigation District, the organization historically charged with managing a huge chunk of water resources.

But to understand the future of water, you need to understand its present.

No one knows exactly how much water there is below the ground. But there is an idea of how much water the county uses.

A 2001 study, the Merced Water Supply Plan, illustrates the competing forces that use water in Merced, as well as the burden that humans put upon the Eastern Merced Basin. The study looked at eastern Merced County, which sucks roughly a million acre-feet out of the ground each year. An acre-foot is the equivalent to the yearly water use of one Valley family or 326,000 gallons.

It's no secret who uses the most water in Merced County -- farmers. In 2000, they collectively pumped 828,000 acre-feet from the ground just in the eastern half of the county. That number is projected to increase to 1,042,000 by 2040.

Urban pumping, the source of all urban water, only accounted for 39,000 acre-feet in that same period. But that number is projected to jump to 118,000 by 2040. The remaining water used comes from surface water, such as Lake McClure and the Merced River.

If you want a sense of how many pumps use the basin's water, the 16,000 or so well permits issued by the county since 1975 would illustrate part of the picture. In the last three years alone, the county issued 843 such permits; many of those -- 578 -- were domestic permits.

While there are far fewer urban wells, ag wells only pump during the growing season, while urban wells pump year-round. The city of Merced, for instance, has 21 wells that automatically pump water all year. Atwater pumps anything from 8 to 14 million gallons a day. Livingston pumps roughly 1 million gallons a day.

The implications of this increasing and varied demand are spelled out in the Merced Water Supply Plan: "Rapid population growth, changing agricultural practices, increased dependence on groundwater, and increased demands for water for environmental purposes have resulted in increased concern over the future of a reliable water supply"

That study is not alone in its concerns for the future.

A study by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, titled "Preparing California for Climate Change," points out that the average temperatures in the state will increase by 2 to 4 degrees by mid-century, much of which will occur in the summer months.

And the Central Valley will feel much more of the heat than other areas. The warming will mean less rain, the study speculates. The warmth will reduce the snowpack in the mountains that for centuries has been counted on to supplement water needs when the rains tail off in the spring. The study says that snowpack may be reduced by anywhere from 12 to 42 percent.

To further drive home the point, the California Department of Water Resources stated in the 2009 California Water Plan that "California is facing a significant water crisis in its history." That may address the current drought, but with the state's population projected to grow by more than 20 million people in the next 50 years, a water crisis may become the norm.

"We are seeing change, big change and we need to respond to it," said Deidre Kelsey, a Merced County supervisor.

On farms across Merced, water and its future are more than a topic of conversation or conservation. It's about economic survival.

Cindy and Bill Lashbrook count themselves lucky among Merced County farmers. They own a parcel on a Michigan-shaped bend in the Merced River north of Livingston. They have easy access to river water, a well and even a parcel with access to irrigation water if they need it.

But the relative liquid abundance that feeds their 74 acres of cherry, almond and blueberries hasn't prevented them from taking a number of steps to reduce their use of water. They use drip irrigation on their orchards and have spread mulch across the ground cover to keep the soil moist. "We are fairly lucky here on the east side," Cindy Lashbrook said. She also sits on the county planning commission.

But even as they try to reduce their farm's water use, they're aware of the stresses that collective use is putting on the basin. Bill Lashbrook said it takes twice as long as it once did for his well to cycle water up from underground. "This groundwater thing is scary," he said. "Everybody is saying it's dropping."

However painful, added Cindy Lashbrook, farming must make some changes to save water. Some marginal farmland may have to be retired. And some water-intensive crops, such as alfalfa, corn and cotton, may not have a future here. But, she added, cities will also have to make some sacrifices.

Aside from farmers like the Lashbrooks, conservation efforts by cities, farmers and water purveyors are either in the works or already being practiced.

Merced Irrigation District, according to Eltal, its chief engineer, has made meaningful leaps in conserving its water use. Over the last decade, besides increasing efficiency, the district has cut back its pumping. "We used to run wells even in normal years," he said. Now MID only pumps when its reservoir is running low. In 2008, MID pumped 100,000 acre-feet from the ground, for example.

Aside from drought years, by using more surface water, MID hopes to have less of an impact on the basin's health. One effort it has pushed is to get farmers to stop pumping and instead use surface water delivered by MID. This and other efforts have enabled the district to recharge the basin to the tune of 58,000 acre-feet a year.

Eltal notes that conservation of farm water is double-edged. Less water used by farmers may reduce pumping and the use of water, but it also means less water is cycling back down into the soil, then into the water table to be used again.

Cities, too, however late in the game, are increasing their conservation efforts.

Mike Wegley, the acting director of public works in Merced, contends that conservation can make an important difference. Besides looking to irrigate landscaping with reused water as well as encouraging more water-efficient landscaping, the city plans to mandate low flushing toilets and shower heads that use less water. The city also plans to meter new water hookups. "Once it is metered, people take more notice of their consumption," he says.

The same kinds of conservation ideas are emerging in other cities in the county too. Even businesses are pondering water.

Joseph Gallo Farms, owner of 12,000 acres in Merced County, has a fairly complicated water reuse and recycling program. Carl Morris, the dairy's general manager, says he does "a whole lot trying to reduce the amount of water our farming operation uses." Like others in the county, Gallo gets water from wells, MID and surface water. But it has set up a series of water reuse systems that not only saves water but money, said Morris.

An example is the reuse of their cooling system water to wash out cow pens. After the water is used to clean their premises, it is then used to irrigate fields for feed. The dairy also uses old water piped to one of its ranches from a cannery to irrigate fields. Morris calculates that these and other reuse measures save the dairy a million gallons a day.

Business and government aren't the only ones that recognize the need to use less water.

John Grant and his wife, Lisa Kayser-Grant, live in a house he built tucked behind a line of thick trees on Bear Creek Drive in Merced. It doesn't look like the other houses in the neighborhood, all with green lawns laid out before them.

The Grants' lawnless yard is just one sign of their consciousness about water. Everything they plant in the backyard, says Lisa Kayser-Grant, is something they can eat. They plan to put in a gray water system that will reuse their washing machine, shower and dish- water in the garden. They also plan to put in a composting toilet that uses no water.

Their tactics are partly driven by their desire to live off the grid, but also by the knowledge that easy access to clean drinking water is coming to an end. "We are very out of touch with our sources of water," Lisa Kayser-Grant suggests, about most policy makers.

"I don't think the leadership is knowledgeable of how critical this thing is," chimed in John Grant.

This sentiment is shared by others.

While there have been efforts to plan for water shortages, critics contend that the leadership across the county has failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem.

Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said none of the county's leaders has been planning as they should about water. She admits that part of the blame lies with overlapping jurisdictions that make cooperation difficult.

But that doesn't excuse the rapid development the county has seen over the past decade. "We need to get away from the idea that all they have to do is drill a well and everything is going to be fine," she says. "That has been the attitude for all of this development that was overblown, and we have no idea what the implications are going to be."

Cities and the county haven't wanted to deal with the issue, she said: "If our leaders don't step up we are going to be in some real trouble."

Greg Wellman, Atwater's city manager, clearly sees the looming crisis. And he admits that cities haven't done as much as they could have. "Could local government have done more? Yes. But that doesn't mean we can't play catch-up now," he says.

County Supervisor Kelsey says that where the county is concerned there hasn't been adequate planing for water. But, she noted, since the county doesn't actually have authority over any water source, its officials have been limited in terms of planning. "We don't control water," she said. But she does recognize that the many interests in the county are going to have to join forces if a planned communal effort is going to work. "You have all these moving parts in the county, and they compete," she observes. "They must cooperate. When things don't work out collectively you'll see someone get sued."

The only such effort on the horizon -- MAGPI -- is in the embryonic stage.

Eltal says the hope is that MAGPI members will form a joint powers authority (JPA) that includes all the east side's players in an elected body that would govern water use. "We are trying to say, 'Let's work together so we are in sync,'" he proposes.

The first step, says Eltal, is to get an idea of how much water there is. In March, a groundwater study that will answer this question is slated to begin. Once the study is complete, there'll be real data on how much water there is under the ground.

Only then, says Eltal, can the basin start moving forward to some kind of agreement. The goal would be a regional body that governs water use. In a lot of ways, says Eltal, this would change how cities and local governments work. It would be government within limits -- ecological limits.

While so far there has been cooperation with MAGPI on the east side, some don't see it as a silver bullet for water cooperation.

County Supervisor Jerry O'Banion thinks the current structure of water management will be able to face the coming challenges. He isn't opposed to the idea of MAGPI, but he isn't assured that it will solve all the area's future water problems. "I question what would be the value of one additional level of government," he says.

Atwater's Wellman says there is definitely a need for cooperation when it comes to water planning, but a JPA may not be the only answer. "I think the issue is up for grabs," he says. "Given the magnitude of the problem, you may have some kind of state initiative."

Most experts agree that no matter what kind of body or law comes down the pipe, a limit on development is going to occur. And that may change fundamentally how the government and the economy work.

"We are going to have to change the economic paradigm," says Andrew Gutierrez, a systems analyst at UC Berkeley who was part of a study on climate change's effect on the state. "We can't continue to have this paradigm of unbridled growth as an indicator of economic health. There will be a conflict between economics and ecology."

For Sharon Hermosillo, who lives among almond orchards near Le Grand, such cosmic concerns are not as pressing as her tap failing to run after her well ran dry last year. "This summer toward the end of the summer, all of a sudden there was no water," she recalls. She went a month without water. Her neighbors' wells have been going dry too.

Hermosillo's new deeper well cost almost $20,000 to put in, she reckons. And like Hermosillo, everyone else in the area is sucking from the same sinking pool. Two orchards near her have also sunk new wells recently. "I don't know what I would do if it happened again," she said. "Maybe I should move?"

If local leadership fails to create workable strategies, what happens to Sharon Hermosillo may well portend what happens to many Mercedians in the future's water wars.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.