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Once again, a big thirsty metropolis is looking at buying Central Valley farmland with an eye toward boosting its water supplies.
And once again, neighboring farmers are nervous about it.
Silicon Valley’s main water agency, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, confirmed Wednesday that it’s considering buying a 5,200-acre Merced County ranch. The district would build a groundwater storage bank beneath the ranch as a buffer during drought conditions.
Farmland purchases by big municipalities are always a sensitive issue, raising warnings of an urban “water grab.” The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California encountered stiff resistance when it spent $175 million to buy five agricultural islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, just south of Sacramento, in 2015. Metropolitan has said it might use the land to store construction equipment for the state’s Delta tunnel project, which is supposed to improve water deliveries from the estuary to the southern half of the state.
And any proposal involving the movement of groundwater from a rural area creates controversy, especially as farmers begin to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a state law that will put strict limits on pumping in the coming years.
A plan by Cadiz Inc. of Los Angeles to pump billions of dollars worth of groundwater from beneath the Mojave Desert has been under intense scrutiny for years. The state Senate recently passed SB 307, which would prevent the Cadiz project from going forward without sign-off from the State Lands Commission; the bill is pending in the Assembly.
In Merced County, the potential sale of the 4-S Ranch Partners property north of Los Banos to Santa Clara has other Merced farmers worried about the prospect of water being pumped out of the area — and farmland being idled.
“There is concern in the farm community if this goes through and if groundwater ... is taken out of our water basin, out of the Merced water basin,” said Gino Pedretti III, president of the Merced County Farm Bureau. “What happens to this ground? Do they fallow it? Is it not going to be in production anymore?”
The owner of the property, Steve Sloan, has previously told the Merced Sun-Star that he uses the land as a cattle ranch. He couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Pedretti said he’s also worried that Santa Clara could use the land as a base from which to make outright purchases of water. “They will be directly competing with farmers themselves,” he said.
Santa Clara officials said the project wouldn’t remove a drop of groundwater from beneath Merced County. Linda LeZotte, chairwoman of the water agency, said Santa Clara would use the farm to store supplies it gets from its two main sources, the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. In dry years, it would pump the water out of the underground bank to augment its supplies, she said.
“That’s what banks are about; you can’t take out more than you put in,” she said. Santa Clara, which serves 2 million residents, also stores supplies in a groundwater bank in Kern County.
The Santa Clara board discussed the Merced proposal in closed session Tuesday. The agenda said the board was discussing “price and terms of payment.”
LeZotte wouldn’t go into details about the potential purchase. The deal was first reported by the San Jose Mercury News.
Sloan has been involved in controversial water deals before. In 2015 he and another farmer proposed selling thousands of acre-feet of groundwater to a pair of irrigation districts in Stanislaus County. After dozens of farmers in the county complained, the Merced Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring a permit before groundwater could be transferred out of the county. A smaller version of the water transfer went through anyway, according to the Farm Bureau’s Pedretti.
LeZotte said Santa Clara is sensitive to farmers’ apprehensions about groundwater getting moved.
“We’re aware of the controversy before,” she said. “We’re aware of the (Merced) ordinance. Whatever transpires, the board would need to consider that.”