2013 was a banner year for water well permits in Stanislaus County

jnsbranti@modbee.comDecember 28, 2013 

Stanislaus County can call 2013 the year of the huge water well.

Nearly 300 water well drilling permits were issued this year, and half of them were for giant irrigation pumps.

That’s about twice as many permits as have been issued in recent years, and the pace of drilling applications expanded dramatically this fall.

During just the past three months, Stanislaus issued nearly 150 drilling permits, with about 100 of them for extremely large irrigation wells. Compare that with fall of last year, when 35 well permits were issued, and four of those were for big agricultural pumps.

That’s about a twentyfold increase in big new wells with casing diameters of 16 inches or more. There’s also been a significant jump in permits for medium-size irrigation wells with 10- to 14-inch casings. Domestic wells, by comparison, have 6- to 8-inch casings.

An environmental activist now is considering legal action to stop Stanislaus from issuing additional permits before doing environmental reviews, and it is possible that requirement could be imposed retroactively on well drilling permits issued during the past six months.

A community group also is gearing up to protect Stanislaus’ groundwater resources, focusing on political strategies to force change.

County officials, meanwhile, are forming a new Water Advisory Committee, and state officials are hinting they’ll take charge if local folks don’t stop depleting the regions’ aquifers.

Recent scientific studies show California’s groundwater supply is rapidly declining, causing swaths of the San Joaquin Valley’s surface – particularly in Merced County – to sink.

And then there’s the ongoing drought, with no rain in sight.

“The reason there is such a flood (of well drilling permits) is because everyone is worried that surface water is not going to be available to them in the quantities they need,” said Sean Roddy, who has operated Modesto-based Hennings Bros. Drilling Co. Inc. for more than two decades.

Roddy said Stanislaus farmers have a twofold problem: the drought causing irrigation districts to cut back on surface water deliveries, and the threat of a possible moratorium stopping new wells from being drilled.

“All the farmers are freaked out,” Roddy said. “And everyone hopes their new wells will be grandfathered in.”

Many of those new wells will be used to nurture almond and walnut orchards being planted in eastern Stanislaus, particularly around Oakdale and Waterford.

Dozens of permits for giant wells have been issued this year for land off Warnerville, Orange Blossom, Sonora and Frankenheimer roads outside Oakdale and off Crabtree and Tim Bell roads near Waterford.

A dozen jumbo wells also were approved for properties around Farmington, a rural community near Stanislaus’ northern edge.

No restrictions

Currently, there are no restrictions on how much water those farmers can pump out of Stanislaus aquifers, but there’s increasing community pressure to change that.

“All these new wells are alarming, and it almost dooms our groundwater supply” if they all actually are installed, warned Neil Hudson, an Oakdale resident who this fall helped form the Eastside Groundwater Coalition.

Hudson is concerned about Stanislaus water tables dropping, and he knows rural residents whose domestic wells have gone dry after massive irrigation wells were installed nearby.

“We need the data to prove what overdraft means. How much water is down there? We don’t know. There’s a heck of a lot we have to learn,” Hudson said. His coalition is planning a big community meeting in January. “We want to do political action and advocacy.”

Some Stanislaus residents – including the Turlock City Council and the chairman of the Oakdale Irrigation District – have proposed the county impose a drilling moratorium until water supply concerns are addressed.

“We’ve had a big increase in population and more farm ground put into production, creating more demand, but they haven’t created any more (water) storage, so farmers turn to groundwater to supplement their irrigation,” said Blake Hennings of Calwater Drilling Co. in Turlock.

An investment

Hennings said Stanislaus farmers are drilling wells because they need them.

“People have investments out there in trees and crops, and they’ve got to have water,” Hennings said. “Now the political arena is talking about curtailing groundwater drilling. Take away water from farmers and you’ll have nothing but a dust bowl and jack rabbits in the great state of California.”

A Modesto Bee analysis of well drilling permits issued this year by Stanislaus’ Department of Environmental Resources found the vast majority of the new wells were requested by the county’s longtime farming families, as opposed to out-of-area agribusiness corporations.

Millcreek Farming/Stueve Brothers, for example, has owned land in Stanislaus for more than 50 years, according to Joe Blum, who is serving as that farm’s project manager for the new trees it’s planting.

Blum said the Stueve land outside Oakdale has been used mostly as pasture for grass-fed Angus beef, but now the family is switching to almond and walnut orchards. Since neither the Oakdale Irrigation District nor the Modesto Irrigation District would guarantee to deliver surface water to their new orchards during drought years, Blum said, the farm is drilling water wells.

“We pulled nine (drilling permits) and we’re using them,” Blum said. He said those wells – with 16- to 20-inch casing diameters – will be capable of pumping 1,800 to 2,500 gallons per minute. “The wells have big diameters, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be pulling all that water.”

Blum said they planted 98,000 trees earlier this year on 653 acres near the Modesto Reservoir, and in a few months they’re planning to start planting 160,000 more trees on 1,100 acres near Highway 108.

Those new orchards need “a reliable source of water,” Blum said, and test holes are “showing a real strong aquifer, at least under our property.”

Consequences

But Jerry Cadagan, a retired lawyer who lives in Sonora, asked what impact those big wells – and others like them – will have on groundwater reserves throughout the region.

“I’m an environmental activist, and I care about California water policy,” Cadagan said. That’s why he recently began gathering well drilling permit data from Stanislaus public records. Cadagan expressed shock at how many wells the county authorized this fall.

“Nobody knows how much damage they’ll do to the aquifer and how many local farmhouses may have their wells go dry because of them,” he said.

It’s not just rural residents who drink well water in Stanislaus: Every one of Stanislaus’ more than 527,000 residents relies on groundwater, including Modestans, who get half their water from wells.

Last year, Stanislaus’ cities and unincorporated towns pumped more than 51.1 billion gallons of water from the county’s aquifers, according to pumping data gathered by The Bee.

Cadagan contends that before approving any more big new wells – like those powerful irrigation pumps with 16-inch well casings – environmental reviews should be done “to determine the level of adverse impact” they could have on water supplies.

“Stanislaus County should have been requiring that already,” he said. He alleged government officials may have violated the California Environmental Quality Act by issuing drilling permits without first doing “a fairly comprehensive analysis of what pumping from those big wells could mean to the aquifer over the long haul.” County comment for this report was unavailable because offices were closed for the week.

Forcing compliance

When a public agency violates CEQA requirements, Cadagan said members of the public like him can take legal action to force compliance.

He said such a lawsuit – which he is considering filing within the “next couple weeks” – could affect every drilling permit issued during the past six months.

Such a legal challenge “would certainly make a lot of enemies,” Hudson said. But he said some people think that might be necessary to stop the overdrafting of Stanislaus’ water table.

Stanislaus County’s Board of Supervisors already has started taking steps to address groundwater concerns. Supervisors began taking applications this month for appointments to a new Water Advisory Committee.

The board also authorized creation of a new water resources manager position. That new hire will oversee the county’s water resources management plan and develop “strategies, policies and programs to enhance groundwater resource opportunities and project implementation.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley contributed to this report. Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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