EDITORIAL: Madera County supervisors premature in approving Gunner Ranch

With California — particularly its farm economy — suffering from the effects of a historic drought, it is imperative that our leaders act responsibly to protect water resources.

Four members of the Madera County Board of Supervisors have failed to meet this expectation with their approval Monday of a new 3,000-home community on 1,000 acres near Children’s Hospital Central California, west of Highway 41.

The supervisors who placed a higher priority on development than the county’s water future are Manuel Nevarez, Rick Farinelli, Max Rodriguez and Tom Wheeler. Residents should remember these names when their wells turn to a trickle.

While it’s true that developer Richard Gunner’s massive project has been on the drawing board since 1994, the water situation has gotten much worse since then. What’s particularly puzzling is that the board signed off on the Gunner Ranch final environmental impact report while the county is trying to assemble a groundwater management plan.

This said, even as far back as 1995, the California Farm Bureau raised questions about the project’s water supply. At Monday’s meeting, representatives from the Madera County Farm Bureau and the Root Crook Water District asked that the project EIR not be approved because they believed the water issues had not been fully vetted.

Among the supervisors, only David Rogers recognized the obvious: Approval of the Gunner Ranch EIR would be premature and potentially detrimental to the area’s groundwater supplies and the county’s ag-driven economy.

Water experts retained by Gunner say that because of the planned reuse of treated wastewater to irrigate landscaping and a county ordinance that reduces the size of residential yards, the community would pump less water from the ground than has been pumped to farm the acreage.

But Chris Campbell, an attorney representing Root Creek Water District, says that “no one believes that this project will help the water table.”

The decision by Children’s Hospital leaders in 1991 to accept Gunner’s offer of free land for a new facility triggered developer dreams of turning farm land into communities. The decision to bolt Fresno also drew justified criticism the hospital was triggering urban sprawl that would add to the region’s unhealthy air.

Now the Madera County Board of Supervisors has compounded that original sin by approving 3,000 more homes before it even has a comprehensive groundwater management plan.