TURLOCK — Farmers and almond growers aren't the only ones pumping water wells like crazy to make up for two dry winters, sucking dry some of their neighbors' shallower wells.
The government is doing it, too.
Turlock Irrigation District leaders know their practice of supplementing mountain-fed canal water with billions of gallons of groundwater could hurt nearby domestic wells.
Several private landowners have been forced to pay more than $10,000 each to deepen their wells or drill new ones, and many more could face similar trouble if dry weather lingers.
But the TID makes no apology and continues to pump, reasoning that it merely is reclaiming water that seeped down from decades of flood irrigating.
In other words, the TID believes it has a right to groundwater because it put that water there in the first place.
The district looks at flood irrigating as "banking during periods of wet, so when times turn and things get dry, we can draw back out water that was applied to farms in prior years," said Michael Frantz, TID board chairman.
The TID expects to pump more than 36.5 billion gallons of groundwater this year from about 256 wells. That's 70 percent more water sucked out of the Turlock Groundwater Basin than it tapped two years ago.
This year, about one-third of the TID's irrigation water is coming from the ground rather than from Sierra runoff.
That much groundwater is about what it takes to meet the needs of 112,000 average-size families for a year but all of it is going toward agriculture, not people.
To tap that groundwater, the TID now rents 151 privately owned wells scattered throughout the region. That is nearly twice as many wells as it rented in 2011. The district also pumps 105 of its own large wells and owns about 49 additional wells it's not currently using.
All told, the TID controls an estimated 20 percent of the wells within its boundaries. And it decides when and how much to pump.
After wet winters when Sierra snowfall is plentiful, the TID doesn't pump much from the aquifer. But during dry years, such as in 2012 and 2013, the TID fires up those pumps to supplement irrigation water by transferring groundwater into its canal system.
That's great for thirsty farms, but it might be drawing down the groundwater basin so low that some family wells are going dry.
Several long-operating wells around Denair have lost all their water, and many more may be in jeopardy.
Pumping from the basin
Denair is part of the Turlock Groundwater Basin. That basin is bounded by the Tuolumne River on the north, the Merced River on the south, the San Joaquin River on the west, and the outcrop of crystalline basement rock in the foothills on the east.
More than 1,000 new wells have been dug in the basin over the past decade, including about 100 drilled by private landowners in the past 10 months. Some of those most recent wells are gigantic, capable of sucking up far more water than old-time wells.
Municipal and community water districts also pump from that basin, including Turlock, Ceres, Hughson, Hilmar, Delhi, Denair, Keyes and Ballico.
Stanislaus County has no limits on how much groundwater landowners can pump, even if it means their new, deeper wells render useless their neighbors' older, shallower wells.
Sue Janke-Morse said her well on Grayson Road, plus two or three other wells down the block in rural Denair, dried up this summer. A friendly rancher let her string a 1,000-foot hose, assisted by a booster pump, to keep her tap running and her goats watered. That's a stopgap measure while she sits on a well driller's waiting list.
"I'm just trying to keep things alive," Janke-Morse said. She is just the latest dry-well victim The Bee has encountered in recent weeks.
Frantz said the TID does not rent wells around Denair, specifically to avoid harming domestic wells there. He said the district knows from experience that Denair's water supply is vulnerable in times of drought.
The TID agreements with owners of the 151 rented wells elsewhere help ditch tenders create a "head" in canals, or enough volume to push deliveries to farmers, district spokeswoman Michelle Reimers said.
Farming advocates say groundwater is essential to crops, especially in dry years when irrigation districts deliver less surface water. When irrigation districts cut back on water deliveries as the TID did this year many farmers turn to well water to make up the difference.
Agriculture is Stanislaus County's biggest industry. Farm receipts reached a record $3.28 billion in 2012, helped by a surge of almond production on the valley's east side.
Board members at the TID's sister district on its north side, the Modesto Irrigation District, fear the almond surge will drain aquifers.
Experts warn that dry soil could compact, leaving earth unable to absorb water again even if the region gets lots of snow and rain someday. Such soil subsidence could transform the valley's east side into an environmental wasteland.
After the 1992 drought ended, the MID halted its scaled-down practice of renting a handful of wells. The MID continues to draw about 4.9 billion gallons from its 42 wells each year, but that's less than one-seventh what the TID is pumping this year.
With 4,904 water customers farming 145,559 acres, the TID is the largest irrigation district in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
To help TID farmers get through this year's dry summer, the MID board in June agreed to sell the TID extra reservoir water. But the TID backed out of the deal in July, saying the partners' Don Pedro Reservoir seems to be capturing more snowmelt than previously predicted.
The TID could have reduced its groundwater pumping and used MID water instead, but it did not. The TID would have paid the MID $100 per acre-foot of water for the 7,000 it originally planned to buy. Instead, the TID is paying just $8 per acre-foot to rent wells.
Then the TID resells that groundwater to other farmers for significantly more money. TID farmers pay the district a fixed charge of $26 per acre-foot in dry years, plus more based on actual use.
Frantz contends it is logical for the TID to tap groundwater supplies during dry years because for decades the TID has made it possible for farmers to flood irrigate with water brought down from the mountains. Because flood irrigating recharges the aquifer, he said there wouldn't be so much water in the ground if it weren't for the TID.
Supplies strained in 1988
The district's right-to-pump logic was employed during a previous drought when it defended against a class-action lawsuit brought by 67 landowners whose wells were going dry, similar to what's happening this year in Denair. In 1988, TID officials initially acknowledged that aggressive pumping was leaving neighbors dry.
"There is no question district-owned pumps are contributing to the damage," then-risk management manager Donald Swanson said in an August 1988 Bee story.
The TID paid $268,249 to some well owners, averaging about half the cost for well improvements. Then in 1989, a local judge refused to order the TID to stop pumping. The TID also prevailed in appellate court and stopped negotiating payments to well owners.
The TID has learned to walk a "delicate balance," Frantz said, of pumping enough to save crops while not harming people.
The TID board went behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss "10 potential cases" of unidentified litigation. But Frantz and Reimers said the district has received no claims this year from well owners.
Frantz paused when asked if the TID can be sure its pumping strategy is not harming domestic well owners.
"No, I'm not sure of that," he said. "Nor could I say with certainty that were it not for farmers around them irrigating for decades that (domestic wells) would have run out sooner. It's equally unknowable."
But the district's strategy clearly enriches some at the peril of others, right?
"There is no good answer," Frantz said. "You've got your finger on the pulse of the matter. Clearly, in periods of shortage, there are winners and losers."
TID's governing board plans to hold a workshop to discuss groundwater issues sometime during September, but the time and date have not been announced.
Three of the TID's five board members are up for re-election this year. As of Friday, no one had filed to run against incumbents Charles Fernandes, Joe Alamo and Ron Macedo. Friday is the filing deadline.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (209) 578-2390.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com (209) 578-2196.
Canal arrangement separate
Although both could strain underground water supplies, the Turlock Irrigation District's strategy of pumping more in dry years is different from a policy making it easier for some farmers to draw groundwater.
A Bee story on July 8 about Denair ranchette wells going dry and farmer Roger Smith's huge new well focused on the TID's policy allowing growers to pump large quantities into district canals for use on nearby fields. Two other TID farmers also use that arrangement, for a total of five wells, to convey quantities that aren't tracked because they remove amounts equal to what's pumped, the TID says.
Smith's Taylor Road well is not among 151 rented this year by the TID to augment the district's total supply, the district says. Those farmers are paid $8 per acre-foot of water pumped, and the TID covers electricity costs for pumping.
The Modesto Irrigation District rents no wells, and no farmers use its canals to transport water.