Merced County landowners try to sell groundwater

Merced Sun-StarMay 19, 2014 

Two private landowners in eastern Merced County are proposing a $46 million sale of groundwater to west-side water districts in Stanislaus County — a transfer of nearly 100,000 acre-feet over four years.

The proposal comes as the ongoing drought challenges growers throughout the San Joaquin Valley, and has Merced County farming leaders worried how such groundwater "mining" would affect their ability to irrigate crops. One Merced County supervisor plans today to ask her colleagues to back an emergency ordinance to stop the sale.

The four-year contract being proposed through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would allow the landowners to sell the water to the Del Puerto Water District and Patterson Irrigation District.

The private landowners are identified as 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and SHS Family Limited Partnership.

Public records indicate that 4-S is linked to Los Banos developer Steve Sloan, a former 20-year member of the Merced County Planning Commission, and SHS is linked to Turlock Fruit Co. Neither Sloan nor principals in Turlock Fruit Co. could be reached Monday for comment.

If the contract is approved, roughly 100,000 acres of groundwater would be pumped from 13 wells in east Merced County over four years. The wells would be pumped 24 hours a day for eight months to extract an estimated 22,000 gallons of groundwater per minute.

Though it's difficult to place a price tag on the water, similar transfers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have fetched $1,000 per acre-foot. Local growers estimate the water's value to be no less than $500 per acre-foot, which would earn $46 million for the landowners over the four-year life of the contract.

The water would be moved either through the San Joaquin River or the East Side Bypass into the Bureau of Reclamation's San Luis Reservoir. From there, the Patterson-based Del Puerto Water District would take it out.

Merced County Farm Bureau executive director Amanda Carvajal said the deal would devastate local farmers already hit hard by a drought year.

"People are alarmed. I think everyone is a little in shock," Carvajal said. "I'm hoping that everyone takes the time to understand the full magnitude of what the impacts might be."

On May 5, the Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Carvajal said the reports were incomplete and did not fully address the detrimental impacts to Merced County.

"When you're pulling water from this higher aquifer, especially in those large quantities, you're pulling from other areas of Merced County," she said. "That's a substantial amount of water and yet this report barely touches on it. This report lacks all data about the groundwater levels."

Another issue with the environmental assessment is that Sloan was one of the reviewers of the report. That could be perceived as a conflict of interest, according to Bob Weimer, a longtime Merced County farmer. "He collected the water samples and provided input," Weimer said. "If you're doing something this major, it should be done by an independent evaluator."

Weimer, who grows sweet potatoes, peaches, almonds and walnuts in Livingston and Atwater, took issue with what he called the report's lack of consideration to Merced County.

"You lose water, you lose jobs — and this study did not evaluate that for Merced County," Weimer said. "There are no real studies on how it impacts the aquifer and how it's going to take away from Merced County. It only talks about the improvement being made in Stanislaus County."

Merced County does not have an ordinance that prohibits exportinggroundwater, often referred to as "groundwater mining." Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties all have some form of groundwater regulation.

The potential groundwater sale was brought to the attention of Supervisor Deidre Kelsey late Thursday by the Merced County Farm Bureau. She requested an item be placed on the agenda for today's Board of Supervisors meeting.

If supervisors decide to issue a response, it has to be done before the end of the day — the close of the comment period.

Kelsey said she is a little suspicious about the proposal because the board never was notified about it.

Weimer and other farmers plan to attend today's supervisors meeting to urge the board to take action against the groundwater sale.

"There are too many growers in Merced County that will be impacted and this water sale needs to be stopped," he said. "The growers are the ones that are going to suffer and the economy will suffer. It's totally unacceptable and the Board of Supervisors need to deal with it head-on to make sure this doesn't occur."


The reporter can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsun

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