In the past few years, irrigation technology has combined with entrepreneurial spirit and money to transform tens of thousands of acres of rolling hills into almond orchards on the San Joaquin Valley's east side.
Drillers such as Sean Roddy helped make it happen because their wells are crucial to keeping alive millions of new trees. They've helped keep Stanislaus County among the top 10 for agricultural bounty in the United States, and almond gross income in 2012 was a relative hair behind milk a surge that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
In 1947, Roddy's grandfather and great-uncle established a Modesto well-drilling outfit that spawned competitors over the decades. Today, Hennings Bros. Drilling Co., operated by Sean Roddy for more than two decades, is owned by his mother, Madeline Roddy.
Drilling huge agricultural wells used to provide a fraction of the company's business. Now, it's an important portion but Sean Roddy also sinks new domestic wells for people whose old wells are running dry from a combination of drought and competition.
With an emerging focus on groundwater issues in boardrooms and in the news, The Bee turned to Roddy for his unique perspective.
Q: You've witnessed firsthand the foothills transformation.
A: It's amazing, the nut production they're getting. Before, that rangeland was worth almost nothing. You buy the ground cheap, rip it, drip-line it and turn it into farmland, and now you're making way more than you ever could when it was just grassland.
In the last 10 years, east side development (of orchards) has exploded. You couldn't go west because the water is poor. Now you have less than normal rainfall and boom, here we are.
Q: Is the water table affected more by weather or too much pumping?
A: There is no way to say absolutely why it's dropping. (Expanding orchards) is positive economically for the valley. At the same time, we have a multitude of dry years and it's nobody's fault other than Mother Nature. If we had gotten more than normal snowfall, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation.
Do you want to beat up the neighboring farmer who has to drill to supplement what (water) he can't buy? They have billions of dollars invested (in orchards). What do you expect these guys to do?
Q: The new wells you drill to help homeowners might not be necessary if you hadn't also drilled industrial wells for farmers. Are you the savior or the villain?
A: We work for everyone, whether the homeowner or a 2,000-gallon-per-minute ag well or a TID (Turlock Irrigation District) project. A bunch of people are upset about groundwater, and I'm the monkey in the middle.
From an environmental sense, it's very curious that you hear the bad about developing ground into farms, but what do more trees do to our air? They clean it up.
Q: Do you sense that officeholders eventually will regulate pumping?
A: If you own property, you own what's underground. Are we going to take away more rights? When you start talking about groundwater rights and responsibilities, who's in control?
Eventually there will be enough people who believe it's acceptable to charge people to pump water. How to go about it responsibly, so it doesn't hurt our economic situation even worse that's the problem.
(Politicians) will want a piece of the action. Once you put laws and requirements on it, we're all screwed. It's a legislative ploy to allow them to financially gain from it.
Q: It's said that California is not particularly friendly toward small-business owners.
A: I don't think the county will want to put more burden on farming operations. They'll be very careful, and rightfully so.
There can't be any blame laid specifically. It's just a part of life and what is responsible action to keep farms operating in the valley. We need to be cognizant (of overpumping), but we still need to live.
Q: What is the best long-term solution?
A: Most of our water comes from the hills to the east. We need more reservoirs, more water stored up in the mountains. Then we'll be fine.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.