Hundreds of concerned community members, farmers, and local officials filled the packed conference room at California State University, Stanislaus on Tuesday evening, April 15 eager to hear more about regional groundwater issues from a panel of experts.
Discussing local groundwater challenges were experts Horacio Ferriz, Professor of Geology at CSU Stanislaus, Michael Cooke, City of Turlock Municipal Services Director, Michael Frantz, Turlock Irrigation District Director, Wayne Zipser, Chair of the Stanislaus County Water Advisory Committee, and Dorene D'Adamo, State Water Resources Control Board member, after being asked by the Turlock Chamber of Commerce to address the regional concern.
Noting the severity of the ongoing drought plaguing California over the past three years and the negative impacts felt by local farmers and the agricultural industry within the Valley, each of the five panelists could agree on one thing: groundwater has been greatly mismanaged within the region for too long.
With the over pumping of wells, and not enough recharging, Turlock Irrigation District Michael Frantz says that water "is in scarcer supply than ever before."
"We do live in a dry and arid land," said Frantz, explaining to the audience the efforts TID is making to get through the dry season. "But this year, we had little to no precipitation in the first two months of the year. Yes, we were able to get about half of our usual average with the rainfall occurring over the past two months, but there is now an added element of risk to our water supply."
Almost all of the panelists agreed that additional storage would be needed to help get through the lengthy droughts which are being projected by experts to occur more frequently in the coming years, and longer in length, due to effects from climate change.
State Water Resources Control Board member Dorene D'Adamo says that there has been an increased interest across the state regarding sustainable groundwater management as climate change continues to increase famine periods, bringing more droughts to California.
"We need to protect our water quality, and our water rights," said D'Adamo. "Groundwater is being significantly used in California; with some communities in the Central Coast having water supplies that rely on 84 percent groundwater...It has had a significant impact on our state infrastructure."
At the state level, D'Adamo says that policy makers are working to increase interconnectivity between groundwater resources and surface water supplies, increasing surface water storage, providing aid for disadvantaged communities that have been negatively impacted by the drought, and helping local entities develop groundwater management programs with some state assistance as part of the draft Water Action Plan.
"All management programs need to have involvement from local government and entities," said D'Adamo. "Oversight and enforcement can help be provided by the State Water Board by providing additional authorities, so that they do the best possible enforcement and monitoring of groundwater resources possible. There needs to be a state role, but we're trying to determine what that role should be, and at what point should the entity completely take over, while the State steps back?"
Working with the Stanislaus County Water Advisory Committee, Wayne Zipser says that he agreed with D'Adamo that any efforts to alleviate groundwater issues should be a collaborative effort through various local agencies, in addition to gaining the trust and help of the local farming community.
"There is still a long ways to go, but first we need to be gathering all the information that we can," said Zipser. "Ag is much different on the West Side as it is on the East Side, where we haven't been able to collect a lot of data to see what kind of issues there might be over there; there's not a lot of representation in that area...We need to keep our eye on the ball, which we haven't done in previous droughts similar to this one...But first we need cooperation, and we need to be provided with information when we need it, which will only happen by creating partnerships with water districts, cities, and gaining trust from the land owners as to what we are going to do with that information."
Zipser said that he has experience working in the past with local farmers and land owners, when the local water coalition began working to develop management practices to help keep pesticides out of public waterways.
"Those efforts were very successful. In 2012, we saw zero exceedances in the top 3 water ways," said Zipser. "But it was only successful because of the farmers doing it right. If we gain their trust, we need to show them that we're only using that information and data to help them, not to punish them."
Over pumping has continually been an issue throughout the region, as the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors approved stricter ground water mining and exportation regulations and penalties in November to help end the over drafting of the precious resource. With minor exceptions, the ordinance prohibited the mining of groundwater within the unincorporated areas of the county and the export of water. Additionally, the Board of Supervisors voted to add a Water Resources Manager position to the Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources, whose duties include overseeing the newly formed Water Advisory Committee on which Zipser sits. The group, Zipser says, has only met about four times thus far, but is continually making efforts to collect the necessary data to find the best solutions to Stanislaus County's groundwater issues.
Representing the city of Turlock was Director of Municipal Services Michael Cooke, who shared a brief explanation of the city's own water conservation efforts throughout recent years in addition to the newly approved water rate increases which are expected to take effect over the next five years in Turlock.
"We've been through this before, but we overcame those problems," said Cooke, speaking of scarce water supplies and the ongoing drought. "We've been continually working on the Surface Water project with TID and other local cities, as water quality is continually going down. Currently it looks like we may need well-head treatments, in addition to new wells due to contamination issues. Because of this, we've prompted a series of water rate increases, and stepped up our education and enforcement efforts during the drought."
According to Cooke, local cities use about 10 percent of the local water supply while farming and agriculture uses close to 90 percent. Although the population of Turlock has steadily grown in the past decade, Cooke says that the average person's individual water use has gone down, as the City is using the same amount of water as 15 years ago when the population was significantly less than today.
"Although as the population grows, Turlock's demand on the aquifer has grown as well," said Cooke. "Turlock is already in compliance in reducing water usage by 20 percent by 2020, as required by state law, but there is plenty more that we can do to sustain Turlock's water supply in the long term."
Following the panel discussion, audience members were allowed to ask questions of the experts, with many focusing on issues such as domestic well owners seeking federal or state assistance, monitoring public wells and enforcement practices, the need for increased storage and snowpack concerns, landscaping regulations, and ensuring that public agencies such as TID were not purchasing groundwater from private owners in areas that are currently over pumped, such as Denair.
"TID has and will continue to monitor groundwater monthly as we have for decades," said Frantz. "We have lines on maps and are very strategic in where we buy water from, and in recent years, have not bought water from areas that are already strained...We need to all work collaboratively during times of plenty and during the dry years to help benefit the region as a whole, and keep water right here to make our community more sustainable."
The forum, which was filmed by CSU Stanislaus and sponsored by the Turlock Chamber of Commerce, will be made available online in the University's archives at www.csustan.edu.