Empty wells leave some area residents high and dry

gstapley@modbee.comJune 14, 2013 

    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

— On June 2, water pressure at the rural home of Peter and Nancy Bakker slowed to a trickle.

Puzzled, they checked all over the house and yard for leaks or open spigots and found none.

By June 4, the water disappeared altogether.

No more filling a glass from the kitchen tap. No more washing dishes or laundry. No more showers. "It's a bad issue," Nancy Bakker said.

Nothing's wrong, a service man said, with the pump that used to deliver water from their domestic well. The problem is that the well has been sucked dry by new wells nearby that are much stronger and deeper.

New wells are keeping alive millions of young trees in orchards stretching across an estimated 150,000 acres to the east of most valley communities. Their owners usually can't join irrigation districts to receive canal water, leaving groundwater as the most viable option.

Making matters much worse is a second consecutive year of little mountain snowfall. That keeps irrigation districts from delivering normal amounts of water to customers, meaning they, too, must pump from wells to augment water needed for all kinds of crops.

At least a dozen of the Bakkers' neighbors between Denair and Turlock are drilling new wells at a cost of roughly $10,000 each, or extending old ones. Dozens more, all east of Highway 99 cities from Oakdale to Merced, face similar conditions.

"I've never seen it like this since 1976-77," said Blake Hennings of Calwater Drilling Co., citing a previous drought that emptied many shallow wells. Those near Hughson, Hickman and Denair dried up first in those years as well, said Michael Frantz, board chairman of the Turlock Irrigation District.

Most other states regulate groundwater with restrictions on how much can be pumped by each landowner, but not California. And farm bureaus on the state level and in Stanislaus County, hoping to protect the area's No. 1 industry, want to keep it that way.

"It's such a huge investment to take grazing land and turn it intoan orchard or vineyard," said Wayne Zipser, executive manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. "How do you say, 'You know what? We propose you can only pump so much, so take out half your acreage.' "

What are people like the Bakkers supposed to do?

"We're on Social Security and it doesn't go very far," Nancy Bakker said. "If you can afford (a new well), fine; if you can't, it's too bad."

For nearly two weeks, they've made regular trips to fast food restaurants to keep hydrated. To flush toilets, they siphon gray water from a small cistern in their yard collecting runoff from their washing machine and dishwater, but that source is smelly and nearly gone. They visit friends for showers.

"I don't mind telling you, I don't sleep much at night with all these things going through my head," Peter Bakker said. "It doesn't look good, but we'll get through it somehow."

They are checking options with nonprofit groups helping underserved communities of people with limited incomes. Traditional rescue organizations provided no relief, they said.

They also pleaded for help at Tuesday's TID board meeting, but understand that the irrigation district has no authority over groundwater and can offer little help.

Frantz said a meeting with local and state water representatives is being arranged to discuss options.

"These are good people," he said, "and we need to work hard to find them some solutions."

Water officials say the best long-term fix would be more surface water storage, meaning new reservoirs, whether above or below ground level. But environmental laws, they say, have made it nearly impossible to do that these days.

Hennings, whose company drills for farmers as well as ranchette owners, predicted more victims like the Bakkers "until politicians and environmentalists finally realize we can't keep mining water, and create more surface storage."

An agricultural advisory committee to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on Monday put final touches on recommendations for a controversial groundwater ordinance, after years of study, and it could go before the board in September. But that proposal would clamp down on pumping groundwater for sale out of the area and doesn't address excessive pumping for local use.

Modesto Irrigation District board member Larry Byrd said his idea to sell surface water in wet years at inflated prices to new orchard growers is a partial solution. Reduced pumping together with water from flooded fields seeping down would replenish groundwater while providing the utility with much-needed cash, he said.

His own well near new orchards in east Stanislaus County, built in 1940, sputtered in early May, forcing him to drop its pump from 80 feet below the surface to 120 feet.

"It's a politically sensitive subject," Byrd said. "If you're a farmer, you own that water below you. But without water, it could become a desert in a hurry.

"When you see dead orchards, everyone will get on board," Byrd said, "but by then it will be too late."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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