Winegrape growers Charlie Starr and Jackson Morehead have much in common. Both rely on groundwater to irrigate their crops and for personal use in their homes. Both have scenic views of the San Joaquin Valley peeking between their manicured rows of winegrapes. Both have family members who worked the land before them. And both see the water level in their wells decreasing.
But there is one area in which the men strongly disagree: How they will vote on Measure C on Tuesday.
"This has been a multi-generational problem and it will require a multi-generational solution," said Starr.
Morehead contends the problem grows from a variety of factors and that there may not even be a definite solution.
"I don't think we can charge groundwater given our soil composition," he said. "Even if we could, the water doesn't know or care where the district's boundaries are. Once it goes underground, there is noting that keeps the water within the district's borders."
Watermelons and controversy
In the early days of agriculture in Lodi, watermelons were the bumper crop. In some cases, growers didn't even need to irrigate the melons because the groundwater was so close to the surface, the roots of the plants could reach down and tap into the precious resource.
However, Lodi's population increased and the demand for food went up with it. Growers continued to produce sizable yields and were ultimately forced to dig wells to supply water. As the years progressed, the water levels in the wells gradually decreased.
Some wells around town have needed to be deepened as the groundwater level continues to lower. People on both sides of the issue agree that more groundwater is being taken out of the ground than can be naturally restored.
But addressing the groundwater problem has proven complicated — and controversial.
The arguments around Measure C date back to May 2007. That's when the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District approved a charge on those who pump groundwater that was met with stern resistance. While district directors acted within the confines of state law when they enacted the charge, officials have admitted that they didn't do enough to inform the public about it. North San Joaquin's board of directors levied the groundwater charge without a full vote by district residents. It conducted a "protest hearing" under Proposition 218 rules, in which a non-vote counted as a "yes" vote.
The backlash from those charged a fee resulted in the creation of Measure V. It aimed to block the district from levying a charge to raise money for projects and equipment without direct voter approval.
Now comes Measure C. It would repeal Measure V and enable the district to pursue a process to enact and collect a fee to recharge the area's diminished groundwater basin.
North San Joaquin leaders say the money they hope to collect if Measure C passes would be used to repair infrastructure and help create delivery systems so the agency can make the most of its 20,000 acre-foot allocation of wet-year water. The district serves 6,000 well owners. It serves the city of Lodi generally east of Ham Lane, as well as Acampo, Victor, Lockeford and Clements.
Voters approved Measure V in November 2008. It was in the same election that district residents also elected the initiative's creator, Bryan Pilkington, to the board.
The next chapter before voters Tuesday is in the form of Measure C.
Supporters of Measure C argue that it is part of a long-term solution to replenish the area's groundwater basin — and that its failure could be catastrophic for area water rights. Proponents don't feel Measure C is a cure-all, but rather a vital piece of the puzzle that leads to a more sustainable future. Measure C is endorsed by the Lodi City Council, the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, the Groundwater Banking Authority, and the San Joaquin Farm Bureau.
Those against the measure argue that it only helps a minority of growers and may not even accomplish what it sets out to do. Critics argue that the board is not to be trusted, and that approval of Measure C is equal to giving the district a blank check.
Opponents contend they won't be able to access the surface water the district would make available because it wouldn't be cost-feasible for them to tap into potential delivery systems.
One farmer who says 'no'
On a recent morning, Morehead was sitting at his dining room table amidst clippings of News-Sentinel articles and advertisements for Measure C. The cluttered table was a direct contrast to the rest of the organized home, decorated with hunting trophies of ducks, moose and elk.
He owns 250 acres in Acampo, and believes those who stand to benefit the most from the passage of Measure C live on the opposite side of the district from him, west of Highway 99 and north of the Mokelumne River.
The pace of his speech was quite deliberate as he explained his opposition to Measure C.
"It will only benefit a handful of people," he said.
One of his biggest problems with Measure C has to do with Tracy Lake, a dry lakebed toward the northwest border of the district.
In a recent meeting, the district applied for a grant that could enable it to look into developing Tracy Lake as a recharge pond. If the grant were to be accepted and Measure C were to pass, the district said it could look into using the combination of funds for the project.
When approving the process to apply for the grant, the board argued Tracy Lake could be used by nearby landowners to draw surface water from the pond, and other water would percolate down and make its way toward the depleting groundwater basin.
Pilkington and Morehead believe the Tracy Lake project, if it moves forward, would mainly benefit large grape growers near the lake who are pushing hard for Measure C.
Filling up Tracy Lake won't help him, Morehead said. He argues against the district's plan for the lake, pointing to the adjacent roads, highway and trees as obstacles that can't be overcome when it comes to building a network of pipes that could deliver surface water to his land.
"It's not going to happen," he said. "The people who benefit should pay the costs."
Morehead has 10 wells on his property, and some are declining more than others. While this is a concern for him, Morehead said the money that could potentially be spent on projects that come with the passage could be better spent by him to maintain his property.
Although supporters of Measure C argue that its passage will lead to less government, Morehead strongly disagrees.
"I'd rather take my money and fend for myself," he said.
Morehead reaches for a pot filled with water representing the area's groundwater basin. Tilting the pot to the left, he says that water flows to the point of least resistance. He puts an index finger on the right side of the pot, demonstrating where his property lies, away from where the water rushes.
"You can replenish it," he says of the basin. "But it has to be raised an awful lot for the groundwater level over here to go up even an inch or two."
The hydrologists and geologists Morehead has talked to have told him it takes between 50 years and centuries for water to make its way from the Sierra snowpack to the local groundwater basin, he said. He's concerned that if the district creates a plan for groundwater recharge that isn't successful, it would be years before anyone realized and made a plan to correct it.
Morehead fears that potential voters haven't educated themselves about the issue and will be swayed by the advertisements in the News-Sentinel and signs in yards around town.
"They will see this picture of a little girl drinking clean water, and that will sway them," said Morehead, holding a clipping from a "Yes on C" ad in a recent edition of the News-Sentinel. "We need to take a common-sense approach and not react to stuff like this."
Another grower's positive view of Measure C
On the other side of the issue is Starr, who grows Zinfandel grapes on 10 acres. His parents owned the land before selling it to the couple Starr bought it from in 2006. Family is one of the biggest reasons he supports the measure.
Starr says its passage is crucial to the sustainability of the region for future generations.
Like Morehead, Starr knew little of the district until going to his mailbox one day in 2007 and opening a bill for groundwater pumping. It was at that time he decided to get informed on the issues and started attending district meetings.
He has one well on the property that was drilled in 1996, a decade before he bought the property.
Like other Measure C supporters, Starr argues that keeping local control of groundwater is paramount. He believes that if the ballot measure fails, the district takes another step towards losing its water rights to other local agencies or even the state.
"We need to keep control of our water as local as possible," he said.
While he understands why some people don't trust the board, Starr said it's now a non-issue since there are so many newly appointed board members in the years since the initial charge was enacted.
"Everyone has a right to express their opinion, but they need to focus on the overall problem," he said. "We need to maintain a clean, abundant water supply."
Touring his property and observing his drip-irrigation lines, Starr said it's important to remember that Measure C only repeals Measure V. It does not immediately enact a new fee on those who pump water.
"There is still more to the process if Measure C passes," he said.
Measure C, if passed, wouldn't immediately enact a new charge on groundwater pumping. It would give the district the right to pursue a process to impose and collect a fee in conjunction with the state's water code and constitution.
He also agrees with statements made by district manager Ed Steffani, who has said on repeated occasions that the defeat of Measure C could mean the end of the agency.
"If they can't use the water rights, then it shouldn't be called a district," Starr said.
Like other Measure C supporters, Starr doesn't see the passage of the initiative as the silver bullet that immediately restores the groundwater basin to its early-1900s levels and rebuilds the district's crumbling pipelines overnight. Instead, he sees it as a critical piece for the board to move forward and prove to the state that it can use what it is legally allowed to take.
He views it as a single step in a longer journey.
"Right now we are on a path where we are not sustainable as an agricultural community or as a community in general," he said. "North San Joaquin can't solve the whole problem. It will take a concerted effort from all of us. We all have to do our part."
Starr fears the defeat of Measure C would push the burden onto future generations. The problem has been clear for some time, and a solution is long overdue, he said.
Like Morehead, Starr doesn't live near Tracy Lake and wouldn't benefit from that specific project, but said helping deliver surface water eases the overall burden on the basin.
He agrees in principle with Morehead that some wells will continue to go down, but a different outlook needs to be taken.
"There will be wells that won't show improvement at a rate that some owners may want," he said. "But a well going down a quarter-foot a year is better than it going down a foot a year."
Looking toward the future
When voters ultimately decide the fate of Measure C on Tuesday, it will certainly be the end of one chapter and the start of another. If Measure C wins, the district can begin the process of exploring and collecting a fee on those who pump groundwater.
Critics will still have opportunities to influence how much the charge is and how — or even if — it is ultimately enacted.
Those who support the charge will likely embrace the possibilities of new pipes, delivery systems and percolation ponds.
If Measure C fails, it remains unclear what exactly will happen to the district. While the district won't shut down the next day, members of the board have repeatedly said the consequences could be dire and could lead to a judge ruling on how the water rights in the region are distributed. Opponents of Measure C refer to that possibility as a scare tactic designed to push the measure past voters.
Back on their respective farms, Starr and Morehead contemplate the importance of the measure and what it means for the future of Lodi. Both are concerned about what will happen at the polls on Tuesday. They, like the rest of the voters in the area, must wait and see.