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April 30, 2014

Stanislaus County groundwater proposal sets threshold, monitoring levels

A 20-point proposal for managing Stanislaus County groundwater – including possible financial help for families whose wells go dry and requirements that farmers report how much they’re pumping – was unveiled Wednesday.

A 20-point proposal for managing Stanislaus County groundwater – including possible financial help for families whose wells go dry and requirements that farmers report how much they’re pumping – was unveiled Wednesday.

The county’s recently formed Water Advisory Committee reviewed the draft framework, which currently includes only broadly written concepts rather than specific details.

The committee plans to fine-tune that framework next month, and then present it in June to the county Board of Supervisors.

The plan includes setting thresholds and monitoring groundwater levels, establishing a governing structure and funding it, and then enforcing regulations.

For the first time Wednesday, committee members discussed the possibility of compensating folks whose family wells go dry because of a “rapid water table decline.”

Several Denair residents in the audience said that’s what happened to them last spring.

“When a neighbor started using a big well on his farm, all our wells went dry,” Anita Kirkpatrick told the committee. She and her husband, Tom, live on North Sperry Road near Denair. They had to spend $13,000 to drill a new well.

Lila Thayer, who also lives on Sperry, said her water dried up, too. The 75-year-old widow said she ended up paying nearly $20,000 to repair and then to replace her well.

Thayer told The Bee another Sperry resident plus four more families in nearby homes had their wells stop working about the same time.

“We’re all angry about it,” Thayer said. “They’re pumping all over (in the agricultural area surrounding our homes). It’s very scary.”

A similar story was shared at the water committee’s meeting two weeks ago.

“We have a real water problem out there," warned Pam Vierra, who lives on North Gratton Road near Denair. She said her 126-foot-deep well has started pumping up sand. “There’s been four new wells go in right around us in the last few months, and new trees (are being planted).”

There has been a dramatic increase in new agricultural wells in Stanislaus during the past year, triggered by the drought, reduced water allocations from irrigation districts and farming expansion. The committee has been looking into the impact all those new wells are having on groundwater levels.

“What happens to people like us who are senior citizens on a fixed income?” Vierra asked the committee. “I don’t have $14,000 to $20,000 to drop my well down to 300 feet.”

The proposal that committee members are considering is to “develop technical evaluation procedures on how to adequately determine factual claims of damage alleged by groundwater users that have lost their ability to pump groundwater.”

Some committee members, like Oakdale Irrigation District director and farmer Al Bairos, expressed concern about verifying the actual cause of wells going dry.

Sean Roddy, a committee member whose family owns Henning Bros. Drilling, told The Bee there’s no way to prove whether a farmer’s irrigation well caused a neighbor’s domestic well to stop working.

“I just don’t believe you can lay blame,” Roddy said. He explained how older shallow wells can go dry because of droughts or because they need to be repaired. “There’s no reality to the idea that someone else is responsible to pay for (the failure of) an old well system.”

What the committee is being asked to considered, however, would be “a way to assist with financing wells lost to rapid water table decline by creating a funding source from well permit fees or other means.”

Such financing potentially could help homeowners like 83-year-old widow Ruth Souza, who lives on South Verduga Road southeast of Turlock. Her well went dry more than a year ago, and she told The Bee she can’t afford the estimated $13,000 required to drill a deeper well.

“I don’t have that money,” Souza said. So for now, she makes due with water supplied to her from a neighbor’s well.

Homeowners elsewhere in county also are reporting problems with their wells.

“I recently heard about three houses in Valley Home with dry wells,” committee member Neil Hudson told the group Wednesday. Hudson helped start the Stanislaus Water Coalition last fall in response to groundwater overdraft concerns in the Oakdale area.

No one knows how much groundwater is being pumped in Stanislaus because private well owners currently are not required to tell anyone how much they’re using. That would change if the proposals discussed Wednesday get adopted.

The draft plan calls for the county to “develop a water use accounting system to monitor and report groundwater withdrawals from all pumping facilities.” That would include thousands of agricultural wells used to irrigation crops. County officials currently have data about how much public wells pump, but the proposal is to monitor every large private well to determine how much water each is pumping every month.

Those pumping totals would be grouped together into geographical sections of the county, and then made public in a way that would not identify individual wells or their owners.

Roddy told The Bee that farmers are very concerned about their pumping records being revealed because they’re being threatened with lawsuits. If farmers release information about how much water they pump or how groundwater levels beneath their property have changed, he said, they fear “that information will be used against them later on.”

A newly formed group of landowners farming 30,000 acres in eastern Stanislaus, called the Agricultural Preservation Alliance, just started providing pumping data is a way that maintains well owner confidentiality, according to Walt Ward, the county’s recently hired water resources manager.

Ward is encouraging other well owners to share their pumping data to help the county better understand groundwater conditions throughout Stanislaus.

The Water Advisory Committee will continue discussing the proposed groundwater management framework at its next meeting, 6 to 10 p.m. May 14 in Harvest Hall at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center, 3800 Cornucopia Way, Modesto.

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