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NO NEW WATER WELLS?
Groundwater laws impact cities, farms
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The days of cities like Manteca, Lathrop and Ripon as well as farmers and rural residents drilling new water wells may be numbered.

San Joaquin County water experts are warning that three measures that passed the California Legislature in a last minute rush that are before Governor Brown for signing have language that will set the stage to further  crippling water supplies for cities, farmers, and rural residents.

In essence, it may stop all new residential development that needs well water and freeze the ability to turn idle farmland into productive crops.

The votes last week  for three companion groundwater management bills  — Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bills 1168 and 1319 — did not garner a single valley legislator’s vote from either party. It has been widely condemned in the valley as a knee jerk reaction to the serious issue of groundwater depletion.

“We opposed it,” said South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields. “We do need to regulate groundwater but after ignoring it for 150 years the bills tried to solve the problem within just 48 hours. It is a serious and complex issues that needs a full debate to avoid pitfalls.”

The pitfalls were outlined by Julianne Phillips, the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau’s water expert, during a presentation Thursday before the Manteca Rotary Club meeting at the Manteca Unified district office campus.

The bills when signed into law will:

• require mandatory registration of all water wells.

• require the mandatory reporting of all water taken from the ground.

• impose new spacing requirements for wells.

• establish water pumping allocations for each well.

• require a plan to put in place and executed  that’s designed to ensure ground water basin sustainability.

• curtail water pumping to January 2010 levels when California was in the middle of a wet winter if the state doesn’t like water basin sustainability programs established by local authorities.

• set the stage for possible denial of replacement wells for those that fail if it is deemed the groundwater basin is not being sustained.

• require hydrologist reports costing into six figures for someone wanting to drill a new well if a challenge is made as to whether it would hurt the overall water basin.

San Joaquin County is one of the few regions in the state that has been managing its groundwater.

San Joaquin County’s Groundwater Banking Authority has been in place since 2001. It monitors 3,000 wells and works to recharge underground aquifers. One of the biggest impacts was to wean the City of Stockton off all groundwater with a $200 million state-of-the art treatment plant that processes Delta water for drinking and other municipal uses.

“That had a big positive impact on the water basin,” Phillips noted. “Urban uses are a huge use of groundwater.”

At the same time water districts such as SSJID were unsuccessful at getting Sacramento lawmakers to address wording in state laws that list domestic and farm use of water as well as that used to sustain fish and ecological systems as beneficial but excludes recharging aquifers. That designation is critical because if a district such as SSJID committed water to help recharge the groundwater basin here in the county to maintain its sustainability, it eventually would lose  rights to that water as the state doesn’t consider it a beneficial use for water.

And in the case of the Stanislaus River watershed, the water would end up going to Los Angeles or large corporate Southern San Joaquin Valley farmers that have contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation that have never been fully honored in terms of the amount of water promised for delivery.

Backers advocated the three bills as keeping groundwater under local control. However,  the water basin authorities — and some 515 would have to be created statewide — don’t meet the rules set down by the three pending laws and the Department of Water Resources, the state will step in and dictate how much water a specific basin can pump.

“They (the state) would have the authority to curtail pumping to the level of the middle of a wet winter (January 2010) when there was minimal pumping going on,” Phillips noted.

Phillips said it was highly likely the governor would sign the three bills since all of them have elements he advocated in his own proposal although Brown has been critical of the trio of bills as he felt they didn’t go far enough.

The laws could ultimately stop Manteca from sinking additional water wells forcing growth to be served exclusively by water contracted through the SSJID’s surface water treatment plant. The same would be true of Lathrop. Ripon would be in a similar situation although it is not currently served by the treatment plant.