DENAIR — Faced with saving crops or friendships, Roger Smith chose crops.
Home water wells owned by several neighbors went dry after the farmer drilled a huge agricultural well to keep alive the corn and alfalfa that feed his dairy cows.
At least six families say they were forced to spend up to $13,000 each sinking new wells or lose the luxury of drinking, flushing and showering. They assume their older, shallow wells fell victim to competition for groundwater from Smith's industrial-size well, aided by a Turlock Irrigation District policy that does not consider effects on neighbors.
An older couple with a fixed income, unable to afford the expense, suffered through a dry month with no water before an anonymous donor offered a loan with easy terms for a new well after reading about their plight in The Bee. Workers drilled it Tuesday.
When the first article appeared three weeks ago, nobody pointed fingers and the story talked in general terms about scads of new agricultural wells threatening underground aquifers on the valley's east side, where millions of trees have been planted in recent years.
This time, people pointed to Smith's new, large well as it pumped hundreds sometimes thousands of gallons a minute into a TID canal.
"It makes sense why all the neighbors' water is gone," said Jim Fisher, crossing his fingers that his well will survive after his threeclosest neighbors were forced to drill down 280 feet to 300 feet for new water. "And all the residents have to foot the bill."
"When you're pumping like (Smith), the water table's going to go down," said Tom Kirkpatrick, "and there's nothing we can do."
Smith did not dispute neighbors' conclusion that his well is to blame. He said he operates the well as little as possible because it costs him money to run; electricity powers the pump.
"When you stick enough straws in the glass, it draws down the water level," Smith agreed. "But if I quit pumping, I'm done," he said; his crops would die.
TID has less to go around
TID customers are getting less water than usual in this second consecutive dry year. The Modesto Irrigation District has agreed to sell some water to help its sister utility, and the Oakdale Irrigation District a few days ago offered more to the MID and the TID.
Smith, 69, said most domestic wells on the outskirts of Denair were installed in the 1950s. People should feel fortunate the wells have lasted this long, he said.
"I get blamed for the water deal because I'm a close target," he said.
Three weeks ago, TID board Chairman Michael Frantz offered sympathy for Peter and Nancy Bakker, who could not afford a new well, but noted that the TID has no jurisdiction over groundwater. Indeed, most states regulate pumping, but California has no such policy.
That means Smith can pump all he wants. So can all well owners throughout Stanislaus County, which has welcomed 2,461 new wells in the past dec-ade.
The TID's "limited water exchange" rule allows Smith to put groundwater directly in a district canal and pull it out for crops downstream. A meter measures the amount pumped so he knows how much to remove.
"He's trying to keep his crops alive," Frantz said.
The MID makes no such accommodation, said Walter Ward, assistant general manager for water operations.
Frantz acknowledged that the policy could be viewed as favoring farmers over homeowners.
"It gets sticky," he said. "As long as there is enough supply to go around, it matters little who gets what. As soon as it becomes a zero-sum game, all of a sudden things don't seem fair."
Agriculture has provided the San Joaquin Valley with rare success in a withering recession. Farming in the county grossed a record $3 billion in 2011; 2012 numbers should be out in a few weeks.
Although California has no statewide groundwater policy, counties such as Kern and Monterey have adopted local rules. Some experts say that needs to happen here before it's too late.
A recent study by the University of California at Irvine used satellites to show that the valley's aquifers are shrinking at an alarming rate and could be depleted "perhaps within decades, putting the nation's food supply at considerable risk."
In a letter to the editor of The Bee, retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy predicted an "environmental disaster" if farmers suck aquifers dry and orchards die, leaving a wasteland.
Counties with groundwater policies seem to react to local crises, said Nick Pinhey, the city of Modesto's former water expert.
Can't act after a crisis
"Letting local people set up a system works quite effectively, but you've got to do it before complete disaster, before land subsidence occurs and you can't store water underground anymore," he said. "You can't let it go to total collapse. You've got to recognize it's coming and do something before it's too late. But it requires a lot of compromise."
Four of Stanislaus County's five supervisors own farmland and have been strong supporters of agriculture. Board chairman Vito Chiesa said the groundwater overdraft issue is not as simple as farmer versus neighbor.
"Do you know how many wells are out there? Thousands and thousands," Chiesa said. He noted that the aquifer relied on by Smith's neighbors may have been affected by thousands of acres of newly planted orchards in foothills to the east.
"Regardless of politics, it's a very complicated issue. I think we need to have that discussion," Chiesa said. He suggested that the board's agriculture advisory committee take a look at it.
Meanwhile, the Bakkers said that before the anonymous donor emerged, a nice couple delivered bottled water and a neighbor brought recycled gray water for flushing toilets.
"It's wonderful that people came forward to help," Nancy Bakker said. "We are so grateful. It blows you away when people are that kind."
Said Peter Bakker: "Everyone uses water; it's the most basic thing that people need."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
For a map of where the Denair well problems occurred, click here.