The Conversation

The Conversation: A controversial water transfer worth millions

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If you want to put a human face on California’s epic drought, Ken Tucker’s will do.

The Central Valley farmer has 400 acres of thirsty almond trees that are in real danger of dying.

Tucker stood before the Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday pleading with the five officials and his fellow farmers not to try to stop a controversial water transfer deal that will ship groundwater from Merced County across the county line north to farmers in Stanislaus.

“I’m here as a farmer today begging for a little water just to keep my trees alive. I’m hoping that the board will see that we need help, and we tried to look at other sources and we cannot find any other water,” he said.

At that point, Tucker paused and turned around to face the sea of plaid shirts and jeans in the audience, his voice emotional and face pained.

“I’m just like the rest of you here, trying to make a living,” he said. “I can’t find any other water sources, and I’m asking for a little help.”

Farmers in Merced County are sympathetic but not inclined to help. They’ve got their own worries: severely reduced water deliveries; wells going dry and the land sinking as groundwater is sucked out.

Now this: Two of their fellow county landowners are about to get very rich by selling the water right out from under them to the Del Puerto Water District, which serves 45,000 acres of farmland – including Tucker’s 400 – mostly in Stanislaus County.

I was at the supervisors meeting last week because this particular deal stinks even to a non-water expert like me. Not since “Chinatown” did a water grab seem so clear cut. How could one person or, in this case two, stick straws in the ground, suck up an increasingly precious resource, and then sell it at fabulous profit to non-locals?

The answer, I found out, is as simple as it is appalling: Because they can.

Unlike every other dry Western state, California doesn’t have rules for groundwater – the unseen pools and rivers and aquifers deep under the ground. If you own the property above it, it’s pretty much yours to use. If that sounds a lot like the Wild West, then Merced would be Dodge City. Other counties and regions, particularly in Southern California, have rules for sustainably managing groundwater basins, a product of previous droughts. Neighboring Stanislaus County, for example, has an ordinance that severely restricts the transfer of water out of the county.

Merced does not.

That fact is a godsend to the Del Puerto Water District, which serves mainly agricultural users in Stanislaus County north of Merced, and relies solely on surface water – rivers, dams, lakes – said Anthea Hansen, general manager of the district. This year, the district’s allocation of water from the Central Valley Project is zero. The district and its farmers are pretty desperate for water, especially those with almond trees who could lose a multiyear investment if they can’t keep the trees alive.

Enter Steve Sloan of 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and Stephen Smith of SHS Family Limited Partnership, two Merced County landowners with wells that are still pumping plenty of water. They are negotiating with Del Puerto to sell up to 23,000 acre-feet of their well water a year, for two years – with a possible two-year extension. They won’t confirm the terms of the deal, since it’s still being worked out, but Sloan did concede that it would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 to $600 an acre-foot. In other words, many millions of dollars.

The wider world might never had heard this tale at all if weren’t for Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. She got word from a grower but didn’t want to send up an alarm until she had proof that a well-water-for-money deal was in the works. Proof wasn’t likely. There’s no easy way to monitor whether people are selling water from their wells.

This time, however, there was hard evidence of a transfer because of the unusual manner of moving the water.

The deal involves 13 wells pumping water nonstop for eight months. The water will be sent down the San Joaquin River and through the Delta-Mendota Canal. Down the line about 32 miles, Del Puerto will collect the water for its users. Some of it will be stored in the San Luis Reservoir for later use.

This arrangement needs approval from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (motto: “Managing Water in the West”). Because of this, the federal agency was required to look at environmental impacts and hold a public comment period, expedited to just about two weeks in this case because of the emergency nature of drought-stricken farmers. The comment period ended Monday.

Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey heard about the deal from Carvajal and rushed to get it onto the board’s Tuesday agenda and procured a one-day extension of the comment period. Later, it came out that board Chairman Jerry O’Banion did know about the pending deal sometime before the meeting, but evidently it didn’t strike him as problematic.

After a long and emotional meeting Tuesday afternoon, the board voted to send a strongly worded letter to the Bureau of Reclamation raising its concerns about the groundwater transfer. That’s the best supervisors can do; the county just doesn’t have the authority to stop so-called groundwater mining. They have only slowed it down.

Sloan dismissed the hubbub after the meeting, saying he’s been selling well water for years. He has pumped twice as much as what is proposed in the Del Puerto deal and it hasn’t affected the water table so far. He notes that since his wells are so shallow – just 37 feet – and fairly isolated, they haven’t hurt anyone else. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, shallow well pumping isn’t the cause of land subsidence seen across the Valley.

Besides, Sloan said, the deal involves plenty of monitoring; if the operation starts to hurt neighbors, “then we stop pumping.”

Perhaps, but as Supervisor Kelsey put it to me: “When you pump, it comes from somewhere.” She can tick off wells that have gone dry. The bureau, in the draft environmental documents for the water transfer, seems to support this: “additional pumping of the well field would decrease groundwater levels as well as increase movement of groundwater into the aquifer underlying the properties beyond what has occurred historically.”

Carvajal worries that this deal will set a precedent and will encourage others to tap into the groundwater and sell it for profit, an operation some call “Digging for Dollars.” And who could blame them? It seems a better bet than farming these days.

Although the county ultimately has no say over this deal, it did a public service by bringing the water transfer to the public’s attention. Not just to get buy-in on water management plans, but to offer the rest of us a crystal-clear illustration of how the failure to regulate the state’s groundwater in any sane way allows exploitation by a few and injury to many.

The good news is that the state’s current water crisis has brought new urgency among local and state legislators and the governor to start regulating groundwater, and it very well may happen this year. Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revise of the 2014-15 budget includes money to assess groundwater resources. And there are at least three bills pending in the state Senate and Assembly that would allow for better monitoring and regulation of water, and expectations are high that something will pass this year.

Let’s hope so. If not, what happened last week in Merced County may just be a preview of what’s to come across the state if this drought doesn’t end soon.