Jeff Jardine: Ceres man among those left high and dry by groundwater grab

jjardine@modbee.comJune 28, 2014 

In what’s become a daily ritual over the past couple of weeks, John Mendosa turns on his faucets and wonders.

Will there be water? And if there is, for how long?

“I went out to water the front yard and, all of a sudden, it went off,” the 63-year-old rural Ceres resident told me. “I went to the pump, which usually holds at about 30 pounds (of pressure per square inch). It was sucking air.”

At first, he thought the well that has served him so well since he bought his home on Don Pedro Road in 1993 had simply run out of juice. At 45 feet, it is a relatively shallow well by most standards. Or maybe the pump, installed 13 years before he moved in, just plumb tuckered out. He called a pump technician, who pulled the main line out of the ground. The tech found some grit and sand, which isn’t uncommon. He reinstalled the line and started it.

“At first, there was a nice, 1-inch stream of water,” Mendosa said. “Then, within a few minutes, nothing.”

The problem isn’t the pump, the tech told him. It’s a water table that seems to ebb and flow like the tides.

About 11/2 miles away, three pumps cranked away, pulling water from the aquifer and dumping it into the Turlock Irrigation District’s Ceres Main Canal.

On Tuesday, Mendosa spoke with a friend who lives on the north side of Hatch Road, across the road from the canal.

“He can see one of the 12-inch pumps from his place,” Mendosa said. “He called me at 8 a.m. to let me know that the pump was running again.”

Whenever those pumps pumped, Mendosa’s water quit running, he said.

Mendosa certainly isn’t the first person to have a well affected by agricultural pumping. Modest Bee reporters Garth Stapley and J.N. Sbranti have received numerous calls and have written about the issue. The problem is this:

We’re in our third year of drought. The water demand by agriculture is huge. So is the profit margin – particularly in the almond industry, which explains the addition of so many thirsty orchards throughout the Central Valley and in the rolling hills eastward. To meet those needs, irrigation districts and private growers are pumping more water out of the ground than ever before. Some of it feeds the canals built to redistribute surface water from rivers including the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced. Some are district-owned wells, while others are rented.

As the aquifers – the underground water supplies – drop, homeowners are seeing their wells go dry. Mendosa is one of them.

He lives in the country southeast of Ceres, in an agricultural area where nuts and row crops are abundant. He certainly isn’t like one of those newbies who moves in next door to a long-established dairy and gripes about the smell, or someone who buys a home in a development near an airport and then wants to ground the planes because they make noise that disrupts the morning yoga sessions.

His family came to the Ceres area in the early 1900s, settling on Redwood Avenue just a mile or so south of where he now lives. He grew up here, worked here and has many friends who are farmers. The well at his home was dug in 1980.

Mendosa called Vito Chiesa, the Stanislaus County supervisor whose 2nd District includes the area where TID is pumping into the canal. Chiesa is a politician, but he’s also a farmer. He understands the bigger picture as well as anyone. Chiesa called officials at TID and explained Mendosa’s dilemma. They agreed to shut down the pumps temporarily and to look into possibly rotating the pumping schedules to minimize the impacts, Chiesa said.

That same day, a TID technician came out to Mendosa’s place to measure the water level.

“He dropped a measuring line down the access port until it registered (with a beep) when it touched water,” Mendosa said. “It registered 46 feet. I have been told my well is 48 feet deep, with the pump set at 45 feet, so you can see my well is on the edge. The TID tech said that by the middle of next month, the water table will be down another 4 or 5 feet. I will have to hook up a garden hose to my neighbor’s system to just have water in the house.”

On Wednesday, a TID official told Mendosa the pumps will stay off for three weeks to ease the impacts. Even so, Mendosa’s well levels continue to ebb and flow like the tides. He suspects other farmers in the area are pumping for their own crops or orchards, keeping an already low water table too low for his pump. Either way, his well isn’t very productive these days. The pump tech told Mendosa he’ll need to drill a new one, and that particular contractor wouldn’t be able to drill it for at least six months, maybe eight.

Mendosa will bear the cost of the new well, estimated at $15,000 to $20,000. He wonders what happened to the idea tossed around during recent meetings of Stanislaus’ Water Advisory Committee, commissioned by the county supervisors, to establish a relief fund for such cases. Earlier this month, the board approved a list of 17 recommendations, none of which limits the number of new well permits or groundwater pumping for sprawling orchards on the eastern side of the county. Nor did they set aside money to help homeowners who are affected by the widespread pumping.

“Believe me, I don’t have any problem with their making money,” Mendosa said. “ But I do have a problem when it costs others money so they can make that money. You would think that with $3.3 billion in gross income (from almonds alone in 2012), the (Almond Board) could easily pay the cost of the wells that go dry. After all, they are the ones making the money, but at the expense of other people. I don’t know the legal aspect, but morally it’s wrong.”

Mendosa knows the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. The demand for water is just too great.

“There are just too many straws,” he said.

Count Mendosa among the growing number of rural homeowners finding out what it’s like to hold the short one.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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