Growers tackle water issues
John Rieping/The Madera Tribune Fairmead residents Barbara Nelson, center left, and Elaine Moore, center right, share their water experiences there with growers who attended a special groundwater Advisory Committee meeting Friday at various county locales.
Local growers and others met last week for a triple tour of Madera County water users Friday and an on-farm groundwater recharge workshop Wednesday. “What we’re trying to do is get different types of beneficial users together so that they can listen to each other’s successes and challenges,” said county Water and Natural Resources Department director Stephanie Anagnoson about the tours.
Participants visited AgriLand Farming Company in Chowchilla, Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Fairmead, and the Ellis Recharge Basin in northeast Madera. The stops were part of a special meeting of the Advisory Committee for area groundwater sustainability agencies.
“I think it’s important to know that there are people who are struggling with water of all different demographics,” said Anagnoson.
These include farmers struggling “to figure out how to farm” under the state’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires the formation of local agencies to manage underground water.
But, she said, it also includes “people in disadvantaged communities like Fairmead” struggling with dry wells and water quality issues.
The 2017 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 2,005 residents in Fairmead with a poverty rate of 29.1 percent and a median household income of $33,472.
“We don’t have a lot of water during the summertime when it’s warm,” said longtime Fairmead farmer Elaine Moore during the tour. “You have to let your grass dry up and your flowers die down. (But) you have water for your household, and that’s what’s important.”
One community well and storage tank provides more than 160 Fairmead households with drinking water, according to the county. In the past, more residents were able to rely on their own domestic wells.
“The groundwater is way down,” said Moore, who explained that some growers dug new wells so deeply that “it dried up (other) people’s wells, literally … It is better (than during the drought), but we live across the freeway and we lost three wells.”Nitrate levels are also a concern, she said.
High levels of nitrate in drinking water can be a health hazard, especially for pregnant women and infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nitrogen can naturally combine with oxygen or ozone to form nitrates, but they also can be leftover from chemical fertilizers or improper disposal of human or animal waste.
Fairmead homes rely on household septic systems, according to Moore, who hopes the community will be able to tie into Chowchilla’s sewage system in the future.
The next public meeting of the county’s Advisory Committee for area groundwater sustainability agencies will be 2 p.m. Thursday, in the third floor conference room 3005.
Friday’s tour ended on a positive note with a visit to the Ellis Street storm water and groundwater recharge basin. The county is able to pump rainwater into thanks to an agreement with Madera Irrigation District, which sponsored the on-farm groundwater recharge workshop last week.
The MID workshop summarized the work of the nonprofit Sustainable Conservation, which has partnered with the district as part of a Central Valley Groundwater Recharge Project. The project has studied the impact of trying to “recharge” the aquifer through selective and controlled flooding of crops when excess surface water is available, such as during the rainy season. The hope is to be able to do so effectively and affordably without significantly harming crops.
The project has produced a Crop Compatibility Calendar for On-Farm Recharge, and a Groundwater Recharge Assessment Tool, which can be used to measure local farmland’s capacity, suitability and other factors for recharging groundwater.
Growers Mark McKean of North Fork, locals Tony Savant and Rick Cosyns, and Arlen Thomas of Merced spoke at the workshop of their personal experience trying to recharge groundwater on their farms.
“Originally I started this because my wife and I were taking a walk during the drought in 2014,” said Cosyns, who is on the MID board of directors. “I saw what I thought were dove feathers sticking up in the soil. I thought maybe my son had been hunting. When I went out there and looked, it was salt. And that really alarmed me ‘cause the vineyard had been under drip (irrigation) for about 20 years ... Immediately after pruning, I flooded that ranch with groundwater just to get the salts down.”
During subsequent wet years, Cosyns has been flood irrigating in early spring. He said the resulting aquifer recharge has stabilized his well water levels, leached salts, and spurred on “better wood growth and better production in those vineyards.”
Those in the district who wish to participate in on-farm recharge can contact MID to apply for free irrigation water through March 19.
Visit www.suscon.org/technical-resources/ for resources on groundwater recharge from the nonprofit Sustainable Conservation.