In an effort to help protect the region’s diminishing groundwater, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors approved new groundwater mining and exportation regulations on Tuesday morning that will help end the over drafting of the precious resource.
With some exemptions, the ordinance prohibits the mining of groundwater within the unincorporated areas of the county and the export of water.
Finding a solution has not been an easy task, however, as the process of determining the best possible methods to address groundwater mining and exportation practices has taken over four years. As early as 2009, concerns regarding the potential overdraft and exportation of groundwater has been continually growing amongst county officials, local stakeholders and members of the water community.
In April 2009, county staff was directed to work alongside the Stanislaus County Agricultural Advisory Board to begin drafting an ordinance that would address the issues surrounding groundwater exportation and mining. Once developed, the draft ordinance was then circulated for comment and input from local stakeholders and the AAB, which was generally accepted by all.
Although the original final draft was recommended for consideration by the Stanislaus County CEO in November 2010, the development of the draft was suspended for outside counsel by water experts to assist in final edits for completion.
During this time, however, a controversial sale of surface water made by the Modesto Irrigation District to San Francisco became such a high-profile community issue that County staff was given the additional task of including two new components to the draft ordinance that would include limits on surface water exports and a discussion of groundwater banking.
A revised draft was then sent to the AAB and re-circulated for comment in June 2012, featuring significant changes from the original 2010 draft, causing a great deal of concern from local stakeholders.
In a letter from the Turlock Irrigation District to the county in August 2012, TID Director of Water Resources Steve Boyd said that TID had “significant concerns regarding the proposed ordinance.”
“We believe that the county should better define the goals and objects of the ordinance,” wrote Boyd. “The ordinance appears to be a solution in search of a problem and attempts to address too many issues at once…Due to its broadly sweeping approach, [the ordinance] could cause conflicts and require agencies to apply for permits to implement existing programs and practices.”
Following the amount of concern put forth by local stakeholders, the county sought the services of the California Water Institute at Fresno State University to hold a series of targeted meetings with stakeholders to develop a base groundwater ordinance that would be supported by the greater water community.
The re-focused meetings were held from February to September 2013, including representatives from Stanislaus County, Oakdale Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District, Central California Irrigation District, the City of Turlock, City of Modesto, the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District.
After multiple meetings and revisions, a groundwater ordinance was developed that was found to be acceptable to the stakeholders working group that were involved. The newly revised draft ordinance continued to address the mining and exportation of groundwater, in addition to surface water exports in the event that groundwater is used to backfill exported water. The previous regulation of groundwater banking was removed in efforts to avoid confusion with the exempted subsurface recharge activities conducted or planned by local water districts and cities.
The draft was approved by the AAB on June 10 and then later presented to partner city managers in early July. An open water summit was also held with the greater water community on July 24. According to the County, the document has been, in large part, well-received by the water community as an important first step.
The West Stanislaus Irrigation District, however, still raised concerns in August, saying that there were areas that appear “ambiguous and could lead to problems in implementation.”
“Given the penalties for non-compliance, the definition of ‘mining’ should be more tightly defined,” wrote General Manger Robert Pierce. “The language as written, however, allows for ambiguity and puts local agencies at risk.”
According the county, however, the ordinance was largely crafted by the water community and took into consideration the concerns of local stakeholders, noting that the protection of groundwater will only happen if members of the water community work together.
“We talk about how there’s not enough surface water in Stanislaus County, there’s not enough in Merced County, not enough in San Joaquin County, so everyone needs to ban together if we want to keep something good going,” said County Supervisor Vito Chiesa on Wednesday. “We need to make sure to protect our surface water rights and that is going to be critical. There is not enough surface water available for the farm expansions, for the municipality expansions all together. So we need to ban together and not fight for water.”
The ordinance defines “mining” as the “extraction of groundwater in a manner that constitutes a waste, unreasonable use, or unreasonable method of use within the county, as interpreted under California Law,” and “export of water” as “the act of conveying groundwater or surface water, substituted with groundwater, out of the county.”
Although there are several exemptions, the mining of groundwater resources within the unincorporated areas of the county and the export of water outside the county are both separately prohibited. Any person found violating the provisions of the new ordinance will be found guilty of a misdemeanor, with each convicted person to be guilty of a separate offense for each and every day during the portion of which any violation of the provisions is committed, continued or allowed, and will be punished accordingly.
The implementation, oversight and enforcement of the new regulations are the responsibilities of the Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources, who will also review the applications for permits to export groundwater. According to the County, permits will only be required for activity that is not exempt from the ordinance.
Identified exemptions from the ordinance include: water resources management practices of public water agencies; water wells delivering 100 gallons per minute or less to uses and property under the same ownership where the well is located; groundwater mining and the export of water done in compliance with a permit issued by the Stanislaus County DER; De-watering of shallow water tables; reasonable use to supplement or replace water; water conservation; groundwater recharge; contamination remediation; Ag operations on contiguous property with common ownership; and licensed bottled water operators.
Although the approval of the ordinance proves to be a significant first-step in protecting groundwater, there is still much work to be done in the coming months.
With the newly approved law, a Water Resources Manager position will be added to the Stanislaus County DER to oversee the planning and implementation of the ordinance, alongside the formation of a 19-member Water Advisory Committee, comprised of representatives from irrigation districts, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, each of the nine cities in the County, the business community, and a member of the County Board of Supervisors.