A just-filed lawsuit seeks a court order to stop Stanislaus County from issuing new well construction permits without first requiring environmental reviews.
Lawyers representing two environmental groups submitted the complaint for declaratory relief, which court officials were processing Tuesday.
Stanislaus Board of Supervisors discussed the legal challenge behind closed doors Tuesday, but county officials say they have yet to be served with the complaint.
The lawsuit contends that Stanislaus well permit policy is unlawful because it allows new groundwater wells to be drilled without determining whether they may have significant adverse environmental effects. The California Environmental Quality Act requires that such reviews be done, according to the lawyers.
At issue are hundreds of large wells primarily for agricultural irrigation in eastern Stanislaus that were approved last year by the county. New wells continue to be granted permits almost daily.
Some kind of environmental review of the consequences of issuing so many permits for high-volume pumping must be done, said Jerry Cadagan of Sonora, an environmental activist and retired lawyer who is behind the lawsuit. If the aquifer underlying eastern Stanislaus goes dry, thats got to have all kinds of consequences on the community.
Officially, the lawsuits plaintiffs are listed as Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources and the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance. POWER is a new group formed by Cadagan. CSPA is a nonprofit group based in Woodland that initiates enforcement actions to protect public trust resources and battles to protect the fisheries and water quality of our waterways, according to its website.
CSPA Executive Director Bill Jennings posted online that the lawsuit was filed because a substantial increase in the number of new wells is depleting area groundwater and, where the wells are hydraulically connected to streams, reducing already inadequate instream flow.
While this action targets Stanislaus County and its environmental resources executives Jami Aggers and Janis Mein, additional lawsuits may be filed next week against the owners of 61 large irrigation wells that were approved within the past six months, Cadagan said.
Those wells not all of which have been drilled are owned by A&A Ranches, A&T Ranches, AA Ranches, Alldrin Brothers, Alldrin Orchards, Joe Areias, Beyer Ranch Family, John Brichetto, Louis Brichetto, Millcreek Farming/Stueve Brothers, Naraghi Farms, S&R Rodoni Farms, W.J. Merrill Co. and Woolfe Farms.
We will sue those permit owners unless we settle with the county first, said Cadagan, who wants those large well permits immediately revoked and environmental studies initiated.
County counsel Jack Doering said those well permits were issued properly and that theres no legal basis for requiring environmental reviews. He said the permit process is required only to make sure wells are constructed correctly; they have nothing to do with regulating how much water is pumped out of the aquifer.
Cadagan said the county and the large well permit owners were notified three weeks ago that a lawsuit would be filed unless they complied with the groups demands. No response was received.
We have no compelling reason to negotiate with them because their demands are outrageous, Doering explained. He said county officials absolutely are concerned about the impact of all the new wells and the conversion of dry pastures into groundwater-irrigated orchards in eastern Stanislaus. He said thats why the county is forming its Water Advisory Committee. Were reassessing our policies and trying to figure things out, Doering said. But this lawsuit isnt the way to fix things.
Besides changing county policy to require environmental reviews for new wells, the lawsuit seeks reimbursement of attorneys fees, legal costs and further relief as the court deems proper.
Plaintiffs attorney Thomas Lippe of San Francisco said the market rate charge for his legal services is $680 per hour.
Cadagan said the longer Stanislaus officials take to settle the lawsuit, the more legal fees are going climb.
Right now, Doering said, it looks like were headed to court.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.