Applications for water-well drilling permits soar in Stanislaus County

jnsbranti@modbee.comNovember 13, 2013 

— There’s seems to be a run on water-well permits in Stanislaus County.

About 60 well permits were requested during the first four weeks of October. That’s 3½ times normal.

“They’re predominately for agriculture and on the east side of the county,” said Jami Aggers, Stanislaus’ director of environmental resources. Her office typically gets about 17 well permit requests per month, she said, acknowledging the sudden increase.

“We don’t know if these permits are just placeholders or if they intend to actually put those wells in,” said Aggers, noting how the permits give landowners one year to dig their wells.

Those permits cost more than $500 each, so they’re not something usually purchased on a whim.

But as the region’s drought continues and groundwater levels decline, demands for a drilling moratorium are increasing. Turlock’s City Council recently suggested just that, and a new citizens group has formed to advocate for groundwater protections.

“It is getting scary, especially when we’re having 77-degree days with no rain in sight,” said Neil Hudson of Oakdale, who is a founding member of the Eastside Groundwater Coalition. His recently formed group is pushing for groundwater regulations to slow the depletion of Stanislaus County’s water basin. “Our little towns are going to become ghost towns if we don’t do something.”

Hydrologic studies report rapidly declining groundwater levels in the San Joaquin Valley. The Central Valley’s water reserves reportedly are shrinking by 800 billion gallons per year, which is enough to meet the annual needs of 22 million people.

“I see an emerging need for citizen pressure to get government agencies to act with more courage. Sacramento has so many overlapping agencies of water jurisdiction that no one takes charge,” Hudson said. “We need a state water czar to get things moving.”

In Stanislaus, meanwhile, millions of new trees – predominately almonds – have been planted in the last couple of years and millions more are planned. Many of those new orchards are nurtured with well water.

Some of their neighbors are blaming those orchards for their wells going dry.

That includes Bill and Kathy Smith, who live on a 105-acre cattle ranch on Horseshoe Road near Knights Ferry. Their property is irrigated by the Oakdale Irrigation District, but their family drinks well water.

Back in 2009 when they had repairs done, the Smiths were told their well was 30 feet below the water line. But just two years later, their well went dry.

The Smiths suspect the 750 acres of almond trees planted adjacent to their western border and the 1,000 acres of new trees planted just beyond that are to blame. Well water is being pumped for all those trees.

“The people planting around us are planting on the tops of hills,” said Kathy Smith, who often can hear her neighbors’ equipment pumping up water for those orchards.

Now even more trees are planned to be planted by another neighbor 150 feet from the Smiths’ home. While the Smiths already have spent nearly $11,000 to drill a deeper family well, they’re concerned about the cumulative impact of all the new wells in the region.

“A lot of our Eastside Groundwater Coalition members live on Horseshoe and Orange Blossom roads, because they’re under the gun,” Hudson explained. He said his group has about 15 core members, but about 200 people attended the coalition’s initial meeting last month.

Coalition members also plan to attend Tuesday’s OID meeting where groundwater issues will be discussed. That 9 a.m. meeting will be at 1205 E F St. in Oakdale.

Hudson said he saw firsthand the vastness of Stanislaus County’s new orchards this week when he flew around in a private plane taking aerial photos of the county’s rural northeast region.

His photos show not only young trees but deep-ripped land where more orchards will be planted this winter.

Hudson said he thinks water meters should be placed on agricultural wells so big water users can be taxed for the water they pump. He suggested that proceeds from those taxes should go toward efforts to recharge the region’s groundwater basins.

County officials also are weighing options for monitoring and protecting Stanislaus groundwater.

“We’re going to be doing a lot more tracking (of wells) going forward,” Aggers said. County supervisors last month authorized the creation of a new water resources manager, and applicants for that $73,000-per-year job are being accepted.

The new staff member will be “responsible for planning, organizing and overseeing the county’s water resources management plan,” according to the job description. Among that employee’s duties will be “developing strategies, policies and programs to enhance groundwater resource opportunities and project implementation” and working with a new Water Advisory Committee.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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