Del Puerto Water District: A problem of demand
Why not look at the Del Puerto Water District's desperate water situation -- zero allocation from the Bureau of Reclamation from the Delta -- as a demand problem rather than a supply problem?
If we look at it that way, we see, as several old-time LIvingston almond growers noted in the recent Merced County Board of Supervisors hearing, that the demand, in fact the raison d'etre of the district, is coming from thousands of acres of almonds planted on seasonal sheep and cow pastures. The pecularity of this west side water district is that, unlike the adjoining exchange districts, Del Puerto has no emergency call on any federal or state water.
In the most severe drought the state has seen in decades, is that distribution of water for the public good, or is just feeding speculators who knew the risks? -- blj
Water sale creates winners, losers...Mariel Garza. Garza is the deputy editor of the Sacramento Bee’s Opinion pages; she attended Tuesday’s Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting.
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 County’s Del Puerto Water District.
“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 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, to a point. They’ve got their own worries: reduced water deliveries; wells going dry and the land sinking as groundwater is sucked out.
Now this: Two Merced County landowners are about to get very rich by selling the water right out from under them to farmers in Del Puerto Water District, which serves 45,000 acres – including Tucker’s 400.
I was at the supervisors meeting last week because this particular deal stinks even to a non-water expert. 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 is as simple as it is appalling: Because they can.
Unlike every other dry Western state, California doesn’t have rules for groundwater. If you own the property above, it’s pretty much yours to use. Other counties and regions, particularly in Southern California, have rules for sustainably managing groundwater basins. Others are struggling to establish rules. 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 Del Puerto Water District, which relies solely on surface water – rivers, dams, lakes – said general manager Anthea Hansen. This year, the district’s allocation from the Central Valley Project is zero. The district and its farmers are pretty desperate for water, especially those who have recently planted almond trees. Without water, investments will be lost.
Enter Steve Sloan of 4-S Ranch Partners LLC and Stephen Smith of SHS Family Limited Partnership, two Merced County landowners with 13 wells pumping plenty of water. They are negotiating with Del Puerto to sell up to 23,000 acre-feet 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 it would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 to $600 an acre-foot. At a minimum, that’s $23 million, but could be as much as $55 million.
The wider world might never had heard this tale if not for how the water must be moved.
The water will be sent down the San Joaquin River and through the Delta-Mendota Canal about 32 miles. There, Del Puerto will collect some the water for its users while storing the rest in San Luis Reservoir. Because the arrangement needs approval from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (motto: “Managing Water in the West”), it came to light. As a federal agency, the Bureau is required to look at environmental impacts and ask for public comments. The comment period ended Monday.
Merced County Farm Bureau executive director Amanda Carvajal was among the first to notice, and she notified county Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who rushed it onto the board’s agenda for last Tuesday. The Bureau granted 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 it didn’t strike him as problematic.
After a long and emotional meeting Tuesday, the board voted to send a strongly worded letter to the Bureau of Reclamation raising its concerns. 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 shallow – just 37 feet – and fairly isolated, they haven’t hurt anyone else. The Bureau of Reclamation says shallow well pumping isn’t the cause of land subsidence.
Besides, Sloan said, the deal involves plenty of monitoring; if the operation starts to hurt neighbors, “then we stop pumping.”
Perhaps, but Supervisor Kelsey isn’t convinced. “When you pump, it comes from somewhere.”
The bureau, in the draft environmental documents for the water transfer, appears to support her worries: “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 encourage others to sell groundwater for profit, an operation some call “Digging for Dollars.”
At the prices 4-S Ranc Partners are getting, who could blame them? It seems a better bet than farming.
Though the county ultimately has no say over this deal, it did a public service by bringing the water transfer to light. 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 allows exploitation by a few and possible injury to many. It’s a scenario being played out in far too many California counties.
Recycled wastewater from Modesto, Turlock will irrigate crops if $100 million pipeline OK'd...J.N. Sbranti, Modesto Bee
Like that old saying about “one man’s trash being another man’s treasure,” wastewater is becoming a coveted commodity.
It’s called recycled water now, and Modesto and Turlock need to get rid of it.
West Side farmers in the Del Puerto Water District, meanwhile, are desperate to use it to irrigate their crops. And apparently they’re willing to bankroll the $100 million cost to pipe the treated water over to their side of Stanislaus County.
The drought is only partly to blame for the ramped-up interest in reusing wastewater, which previously had been flushed from toilets and drained down sinks.
Ever-increasing government regulations and environmental restrictions are making it more difficult and expensive to release that water into the San Joaquin River, even after extensive treatments have removed all the yucky stuff.
Modesto and Turlock already have spent millions on pipes leading west to the river, but now city leaders think there’s a better option than letting that water flow into the San Joaquin.
“This recycled water project will help a neighbor in our county, create some jobs, save some trees and help our economy,” predicted Brad Hawn, a structural engineer and former Modesto city councilman who is consulting on the project. “Our community has got to start getting some wins, and this is a win.”
If everything goes as planned, recycled water will start flowing down the 6-mile pipeline under the river and to the Delta-Mendota Canal by 2018. Del Puerto farmers will take it from there.
Preliminary work on what is called the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program began four years ago. Drafting of the environmental impact report is about to begin, and the public has until Wednesday to make initial comments about it.
“This is going to be the largest recycled water project in California,” Hawn said. “It’s getting national attention.”
A reliable source
It certainly is foremost on the minds of West Side farmers, who are scrambling to find a reliable, affordable source of irrigation water.
The 45,000-acre Del Puerto Water District is supposed to get water from the federally run Central Valley Project system, but it’s not getting one drop this season.
“If we cannot get a sustainable, reliable source of water … we’re not going to be able to continue,” said Jim Jasper, owner of Stewart & Jasper Orchards and a member of the Del Puerto board of directors.
Del Puerto stretches from Vernalis to Santa Nella, including western parts of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties. It pulls irrigation water from the Delta-Mendota Canal, which is part of the federal Central Valley Project.
If the pipeline is built as proposed, an estimated 30,600 acre-feet of recycled water could flow into the Delta-Mendota by 2018. Based on city growth projections, the volume would increase to 59,000 acre-feet by 2045.
To cover the pipeline’s $100 million cost, Hawn said Del Puerto farmers would be expected to pay $200 to $250 per acre-foot of recycled water they receive for the first 30 years.
They’re paying much more than that now.
Del Puerto farmers paid an average $275 per acre-foot for the water they bought last year, said Anthea Hansen, the district’s manager. When Central Valley Project water is available, the federal government charges $60 an acre-foot, but Del Puerto received 20 percent of its allotment last year, and none this year.
Hansen said she’s been trying to buy water this spring for $775 to $1,000 an acre-foot, but “we haven’t finalized any transactions at all yet.”
Because Central Valley Project water allocations keep getting cut back – primarily because of environmental water demands – Hansen said buying enough water to keep crops growing is becoming more difficult every year.
Groundwater in Del Puerto is scarce and of poor quality, so pumping can’t make up the difference.
“This year, we could have as much as 15,000 acres go fallow,” warned Hansen, noting that’s one-third of the district. More than half of Del Puerto’s land is in Stanislaus County. “This recycled water will give us something we can count on in the future.”
Recycled wastewater from tertiary treatment plants is considered clean enough for virtually all uses except drinking. It’s expensive to get it that pure.
Modesto is constructing a $130 million tertiary treatment plant, which is expected to be complete next year and operating by 2016, according to William Wong, acting director of the city’s Utility Planning and Projects Department.
Modesto’s plant is next to the San Joaquin River off Jennings Road.
Turlock built its $35 million tertiary plant in 2006, where it treats water from Turlock, Ceres, Denair and Keyes.
Last month, Turlock finished building a $20 million pipeline to carry its recycled water from its plant to the San Joaquin River near South Carpenter Road.
That was a stroke of luck for Del Puerto because now getting Modesto’s and Turlock’s recycled water to the Delta-Mendota Canal is relatively easy. It would entail tunneling under the San Joaquin River and piping along county-owned roads.
In fact, Hansen said drilling the bore and constructing the pipeline is expected to take less time than getting the project approved by government regulators. She said more agencies “than I even knew existed” must grant permission before the pipeline can be built.
Part of the process includes an environmental impact report, and work on that is about to begin. The initial public comment period for that report is open through Wednesday.
So now is the time for people and agencies to object to the project. Some are doing so.
Back in 2002 when Turlock started planning its discharge pipeline, “nobody wanted to partner with us” to bring the city’s recycled water to nearby farms, said Michael Cooke, Turlock’s municipal services director. So the city built the pipeline west with plans to dump the water into the river.
“But the water situation has changed in California and the perception of recycled water has changed, too,” Cooke said.
Now the Turlock Irrigation District wants that water, too.
“TID’s interest in recycled water is part of our overall concern for the stewardship of local water resources,” district spokesman Calvin Curtin said. “We look at recycled water not as just a way to help mitigate the drought, but as a possible long-term component of our water supply portfolio.”
Curtin said TID understands how desperate Del Puerto’s situation is, “but would be remiss if we did not participate in the NVRRWP process and highlight the fact that recycled water can be used to irrigate crops in the Turlock Groundwater Basin and also recharge the basin.”
There also may be public debate over which route the pipeline should take. Two options are being considered.
City officials favor the route that would pipe Turlock’s recycled water north – along South Carpenter Road, West Main Avenue and Jennings Road – to where Modesto’s new treatment plant is being built.
There, Modesto and Turlock recycled water would merge, then be piped under the river. The pipeline would continue west down Lemon and Zacharias avenues to the Delta-Mendota Canal.
The alternate plan is to build two separate pipelines. The northern one would start at the Modesto plant and follow the same route from there. The second, southern route would start where Turlock’s just-completed pipeline ends near South Carpenter Road, go under the river, down Pomegranate and Marshall avenues to the canal.
Wong said both routes would cost about the same to build.
“We’re going to use county right of ways because the pipeline will be next to existing roads,” explained Wong, noting how that will save money because less land would have to be purchased. He said “great technology” exists to drill under rivers, so that wouldn’t be a problem.
The proposed pipeline would be 54 inches in diameter, which would be plenty big enough to accommodate future growth. Wong said it would be a pressurized pipe made of high-density plastic that’s “virtually bulletproof.” It would be buried 8 to 12 feet deep.
Hawn said sending the recycled water to Del Puerto rather than pouring it into the river will end up saving Turlock and Modesto money. That’s “because in the future, the state of California is going to increase requirements” for any water discharged into rivers.
“The savings for the cities will come from the avoided costs of not having to do more water treatments,” Hawn said. The whole county ultimately will benefit, he added, because building the pipeline will create construction jobs, and irrigating with recycled water will save agricultural jobs. “It’s the right thing to do.”
North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program
Who: Modesto, Turlock and the Del Puerto Water District partnership.
What: Proposed $100 million pipeline to transport treated wastewater from Modesto, Turlock, Ceres, Denair and Keyes for use irrigating 45,000 acres of farms in western Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.
Where: 6-mile pipeline under the San Joaquin River to the Delta-Mendota Canal; two possible routes being considered.
When: Completion planned by 2018.
Why: To provide Del Puerto a reliable supply of irrigation water and to help Modesto and Turlock avoid the cost of increasing environmental standards for discharging into the river.
How much: $100 million construction cost to be paid for over 30 years by Del Puerto farmers who use the water.
Public comments: Send by May 28 to William Wong, acting director of Modesto’s Utility Planning and Projects Department, 1010 10th St., Fourth Floor, Modesto 95354.
Project website: www.nvr-recycledwater.org