Merced County groundwater transfer questioned

Merced Sun-StarMay 20, 2014 

MERCED — The fight for water pitted farmers from opposite sides of Merced County during an emotional Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

At issue is a contract allowing two Merced County landowners to sell up to 23,000 acre-feet of groundwater to two west-side water districts in Stanislaus County.

Supervisors voted unanimously to send a comment letter to the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the agency proposing the water transfer — outlining "serious questions" about the proposal.

The action doesn't halt the sale, but the federal agency must issue a response to the county's questions before it can move forward.

County officials submitted the letter Tuesday. A response is expected within a few weeks, officials said.

The two landowners, Steve Sloan of 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and Stephen Smith of SHS Family Limited Partnership, were present for the meeting Tuesday. Neither expressed surprise over the board's decision.

"It went about exactly how I thought it was going to go," Sloan said. "I'm disappointed with the rhetoric about the county initiating a groundwater ordinance because we all rely on the free movement of water around the state."

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

If approved, the contract calls for 13 east-side wells to be pumped for eight months to extract an estimated 22,000 gallons of groundwater per minute. The water would be sold to the Del Puerto Water District and Patterson Irrigation District.

Sloan said the owners would be paid $500 to $600 per acre-foot of water, potentially fetching $46 million over the life of the four-year contract. The contract is two years, but allows an extension for another two years.

Smith said the owners expected to begin pumping the wells on June 1. He said the project includes monitoring related to subsidence and water-quality issues.

Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, said farmers on the west side of Merced County are struggling to keep their crops alive. "I don't have time to wait for policy direction. We need this water to be moving in the summer months to keep the trees alive."

But dozens of farmers from other parts of Merced County urged the supervisors to consider the impacts to their operations, especially during one of the driest years on record.

"I really feel for you, but we've got big problems in our area, too," said El Nido farmer Anthony Roggero. "We may go dry, too."


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