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Farmer digs in with private aquifer

Project allows farmer to save water from good year for drought years


Capital Press

As California's drought dragged out over the past three years, the San Joaquin Valley town of Mendota became a household name, its ranks of idled workers swelling while thousands of acres sat fallow.

On the southern outskirts of town, behind the empty Spreckels sugar plant -- abandoned by a sugar-beet industry that left the state years ago -- lies a 150-acre groundwater bank that many see as an example of how small-scale storage could help valley farmers deal with unsteady water supplies.

The man who now owns the Spreckels property is Marvin Meyers, a self-made farmer whose resourcefulness has earned him a seat on the State Board of Food and Agriculture. Meyers has used a small part of the land to create one of the first private ground water aquifers.

"I did it because I wanted to save our farm," Meyers said. "I didn't want to be on my knees, begging somebody for supplemental water, or going to the bank and saying, God, give me some more money so I can pay for $400 (per acre-foot) water.

"Without this bank we would die," Meyers said.

Meyers began building the family farming enterprise in the 1970s to the west of Mendota, where the Coast Range foothills begin rising from the valley. The family's cotton and melons eventually gave way to almonds, a crop whose high value could better offset the cost of securing water.

When drought hit the state in the late 1970s, it gave Meyers second thoughts about survival. When it happened again in the early 1990s, it convinced him he needed a backup plan.

He began mulling notions of a private groundwater-banking project. He got started in the late-'90s, purchasing the Spreckels property and spending several years convincing the Bureau of Reclamation his idea was sound.

"You can't imagine the amount of work we did to prove this was viable for water storage," Meyers said, telling of a "gut-churning" experience that drew out for several years with no assurance of success.

With permitting accomplished by 2002, Meyers began pumping water from the adjacent Mendota Pool, a federal irrigation reservoir, into the sprawling groundwater-recharge ponds next to the sugar plant.

Meyers said he used no public grants, self-financing the entire project.

It consists of five ponds, which Meyers wants to expand to nine. When water is available in summer, the wide-open pump allows the project to sink 50 acre-feet per day into the aquifer below, an amount that he wants to increase.

Meyers said he used 3,000 acre-feet from the bank in 2008. As the drought peaked in 2009, he used about 6,000.

In coordination with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, Meyers' banking earns him credits for using federal water on his 3,500 acres of almonds in the westside hills. An equivalent amount is then available to the federal Central Valley Project from the water bank.

To manage the project, Meyers hired biologist Jason Dean, who calls Meyers "rather progressive" for keeping a biologist on staff. His employment said something about the ever-escalating intricacies of the state's environmental rules, Dean said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you see more of it in the future," he said.

Bird life is abundant on the ponds. Flocks of pelicans and geese mix with wood ducks, great blue herons, hawks and kites, among other species. Meyers is developing visitor facilities, and for the past two years has hosted, by his estimate, some 2,000 schoolchildren on field trips.

The education side of the endeavor is run as a nonprofit called the Meyers Water Bank & Wildlife Project. Schoolkids come to learn about birds and native vegetation, following a curriculum developed by Dean along with several teachers around the region.

But Meyers feels other farmers can do similar projects, as long as the geology is workable and conveyance and funding are available. A cooperative venture could help the model work, he said.

The location of the Spreckels land is an advantage. The Mendota Pool makes conveyance easy -- the project needed only a pump and a short line to bring water to one pond, from where it spreads to the others.

But similar opportunities can be found elsewhere, Meyers said.

"It doesn't have to be a big project," Meyers said. "It can be a couple thousand acre-feet they put in the ground. But it (will help) supplement them in lean years."

Marvin Meyers

Occupation: Owner, Meyers Farm Family Trust

Age: 76

Hometown: Fresno, Calif.

Education: Bachelor's degree in agriculture, Fresno State University, 1956

Quote: "I didn't want to be on my knees, begging somebody for supplemental water, or going to the bank and saying, God, give me some more money so I can pay for $400 (per acre-foot) water."

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