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Groundwater pumping in South County stirs talk of restrictions

Groundwater pumping in South County stirs talk of restrictions

After seven years of limitations on filling Success Dam above Porterville due to earthquake safety concerns, the US Army Corps Of Engineers is expected to lift the restrictions this fall according to several local informed sources.

That would be some rare good news in this – another drought year – because if it does rain this winter “we can capture more surface water instead of continued all-out ground water pumping” says local water expert Dick Schafer.

“But I am afraid even with several good years we are too far behind on  the overdraft of our groundwater (below Porterville) to make it up” says Schafer, a Visalia civil engineer.

Instead, two local water districts are in discussion on a possible locally

organized groundwater management plan that could potentially take several directions says Schafer

A task force comprised of landowners continues to meet every few months to talk through the growing concern over groundwater depletion within the Lower Tule River and Pixley irrigation districts and to determine what can be done to correct the problem says the latest issue of the Friant Water Users newspaper.

“This is entirely a landowner driven effort,” said Dan Vink, General Manager. “The district is simply helping facilitate the process.”

The task force is exploring a variety of options ranging from new supplies to conservation to even the possibility of self-imposed regulation if that is what is necessary to preserve the underground water supply.

It has been agreed that the current rate of use is “not sustainable.” Some parts of the water district like lands west of Pixley have seen their water table drop to 280 ft. below ground compared to around 170 ft. in 2008 according to the district groundwater maps.

Common Pool

Vink says while water is traditionally considered a private property issue “it’s a common pool out there that is quickly depleting.”

Vink adds “in the past 10 years the south county has seen both more  permanent plantings and a more intense dairy industry.”

“I have guys coming to me and saying our wells our collapsing and we are seeing signs of land subsidence. There is just a lot of pumping going on.”

Schafer says “the growth in plantings of dairy feed from corn silage to alfalfa and other grains is a good amount of the problem in southern Tulare County.”

The 2012 Tulare County Crop Report says acreage of these three key feed gains totaled around 429,00 acres.By contrast 18 years ago in the 1994 crop report – these three grains grown in the county totaled 189,000 acres.

Add to the increased acreage the fact that most feed crops take double per acre what is required to water citrus or nuts, says Schafer.

Vink adds that “I’d say in the past five to six years we have experienced a groundwater crisis and now it’s turning into a disaster.”

Something has to be done agree the two leaders and that something  won’t be any fun.


Paid Not To Farm?

Schafer says the two hottest ideas being floated right now would be  that existing farm owners would pool money to pay other farm owners not to farm. An alternate would be to eliminate double cropping. A second plan following what is happening in southern California – would be some kind of well monitoring and allocation – meters for example.

“Right now it’s who can drill the deepest” shrugs Schafer.

Schafer says the district will likely work to organize a local management plan under state groundwater management legislation. Locals want to try to do this themselves rather than have the state step in.

Regarding Success Dam, allowing the 82,000 acre/ft. reservoir to fill would be a boost to efforts to stem the groundwater depletion. But in many years not enough rain comes down to allow the reservoir to store up to capacity. In 2012 the dam filled to 65,000 acre/ft. and this  water year only around 30,000 acre/ft. was stored.The average yield is around 40,000 acre ft. Farmers got only a few weeks of irrigation run this year and to bring their crop in – turned to the pumps.


Dam Safety Official Word Coming

Last year the Corp made preliminary determination that dam safety was not a critical issue after several years of study and a eye-popping price tag to replace the dam.

Schafer says now the Corp schedule calls for report on dam safety to be given to the Corp’s Senior Operations Group that is said to suggest lifting of the restrictions

The Corp brass will give the official word in November, he says. Schafer expects a project to widen the spillway to capture a potential 1 in 10,000 year flood – will go forward. “They have a 44 ft. widening plan on their desk ready to go.”

But they will drop the plan to spend $500 million to replace the dam that cost $14 million to build in the 1960s.

-By John Lindt

Sierra2TheSea NewsService

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