The May 14, 2019 Board Agenda for the Santa Clara Valley Water District included a closed session item to discuss “setting negotiation parameters” for the purchase of 17 parcels of land in Merced County.
County tax records show that the parcels total 5,257 acres, and are owned by 4S Ranch Partners LLC. The parcels are within the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, which is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as winter wetlands for waterfowl migrating on the Pacific Flyway. The parcels are encumbered by conservation easements.
On May 9, 2019, Katja Irvin, chair of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter Water Committee, sent comments that the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board needed to disclose the rationale for the land purchase and hold a hearing. The following day, the item was removed from the Board meeting agenda.
Controversial Groundwater Transfer
In 2014 and 2015, 4S Ranch Partners LLC and neighboring SHS Ranch transferred 13,000 acre-feet a year of groundwater to the Del Puerto and Patterson Irrigation Districts. The groundwater was pumped from 14 wells on the ranches into Bear Creek and the unlined Eastside Bypass Canal. Both flow into the San Joaquin River.
The US Bureau of Reclamation prepared an Environmental Assessment which found that the transfer of up to 26,000 acre-feet a year of groundwater from the parcels from 2014-2018 would have no significant impact. Reclamation’s environmental assessment relied on oral statements by Stephen Sloan, an owner of 4S Ranch Partners, that groundwater levels in the area were stable. The Merced Irrigation District disputed this statement, commenting that well records showed that groundwater levels in the area were declining. MID asserted that the groundwater export would have adverse effects on the Merced groundwater basin.
The Merced Groundwater Subbasin is a high priority, critically overdrafted basin. Groundwater mapping shows that the parcels are adjacent to a cone of depression.
The Stevinson Water District has pre-1914 water rights to Bear Creek and a historic agreement with Merced Irrigation District to water spilled into the Eastside Bypass Canal. Stevinson Water District protested that the transfer would be a trespass to their surface water rights, stating:
This Project appears to be a variation of a project recently abandoned by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and the project proponent in late 2013. That project was called the 4-S/Smith Ranch Refuge Water Supply Pilot Exchange Project for the East Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. When that project was proposed, the District expressed concern regarding the connectivity between the groundwater wells identified for use as part of the project and the East Side Canal. Indeed, the records of the USBR confirmed connectivity and recognized that the wells, located adjacent to the East Side Canal, would pump canal water. The District obtained numerous documents pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, including well records, reports, and other studies documenting the link between the groundwater wells and local surface watercourses.
Neighboring farmers also strongly objected, and the Merced County Board of Supervisors expressed strong concerns. As a result of the storm of protests, the groundwater transfer to the Del Puerto and Patterson Irrigation Districts was reduced to 13,000 acre-feet a year for two years.
In 2015, Merced County passed an ordinance which prohibited the export of groundwater from inside the county without a permit from the Merced Department of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health. However, there is an exemption for water released to replace surface water used for fish and wildlife or downstream water quality or quantity needs:
Reasonable use of groundwater resources to supplement or replace surface water released for other reasonable and beneficial purposes, including but not limited to fisheries, wildlife refuges, ecosystem habitat or downstream water quality or quantity needs, when required pursuant to federal and state law, regulations, licenses, or pursuant to conditions imposed by valid permits.
Santa Clara Valley Water District filed a lawsuit in January against the State Water Resources Control Board over new flow requirements on the lower San Joaquin River. The District is in settlement negotiations with the state over the lawsuit. It seems clear that the 4S Ranch wells could potentially be used to supply water for Voluntary Settlement Agreements. However, such a use would be extremely controversial.