June 28, 2014

Homeowners go dry as farmers get permits to drill hundreds of new wells

Water well drilling permits are being issued at a breakneck pace in Stanislaus County as domestic wells go dry.

Stanislaus County farmers have been granted permission to drill hundreds of new agricultural wells this year, while an increasing number of domestic water wells go dry, a review of permit records shows.

A record-breaking 299 new water well drilling permits were issued in the first six months of 2014. That’s nearly as many as were issued during all of 2013, which itself was a banner year for drilling.

But it’s not only farmers who are seeking new sources of groundwater during this third year of drought: 69 permits have been issued for new domestic wells, almost all of which went to rural Stanislaus homeowners whose wells have dried up.

“Mine went dry Memorial Day,” said 75-year-old Gilbert Meeks, who lives near Denair. “Everybody in this area around me is going dry.”

As a widower on a fixed income, Meeks is bracing for the more than $17,000 cost of a new well and pump system.

“I’m wondering how I’m going to pay for it,” he said. Until he gets water pumping again, he’s making do with “a water hose running 200 feet from my neighbor’s house to my house.”

Meeks knows there’s a drought, but he blames excessive pumping by nearby agricultural wells for draining the aquifer beneath his home.

“All these irrigation pumps up and down Service Road pumping into the (Turlock Irrigation District) canals” did it, Meeks suspects. He said one particular well, known as the O’Brien pump, “ran for three or four weeks around the clock.”

Complaints to TID eventually got that pump turned off, but not before Meeks’ well was empty.

“We became aware of the issue regarding the O’Brien pump and in response turned it off, along with three others, on June 6,” TID spokesman Calvin Curtin said. “The pumps remain turned off, and we are continuing to monitor the situation in that area.”

Several other rural homeowners, including John Mendosa, who lives near Ceres, also are concerned that irrigation districts are pumping too much well water to supplement their agricultural supplies, draining water basins to levels too low for older domestic wells to reach.

“TID is reacting to these situations as we become aware of them,” Curtin said. “If we determine a domestic well is dry, TID will typically turn off pumps in the immediate vicinity and evaluate the circumstances.”

Wells are going dry in many parts of the county, however, and some homeowners must wait months for well drilling companies to arrive.

“Have you ever tried taking a shower with bottled water?” asked Dan Vigil, whose home southeast of Oakdale went dry four weeks ago. He hopes to get a new well drilled within a few weeks.

“People’s wells are going dry,” Vigil said. “All of a sudden, it’s rampant.”

The property surrounding his home used to be all grazing land, but now there are orchards.

“I’m not eating almonds and walnuts anymore,” vowed Vigil, making clear what he thinks caused his well to go dry. “These guys growing trees should compensate everyone around them. … I’m looking at paying $15,000 for my well.”

‘The urgency is now’

During all of 2013, nine new well permits were issued for homes near Oakdale. But this year, 19 permits already have been issued for domestic wells in Oakdale.

Also since January, there have been 11 permits for new domestic wells in Turlock, eight in Modesto, seven in Denair, six in Hughson, four in Crows Landing, three each in Ceres, Patterson, Newman and Hickman, and two in Waterford.

“This is going to be a rough year,” predicted Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. “I’ve probably had six phone calls in the last two weeks” from people whose wells are going dry.

Chiesa said he and Supervisor Terry Withrow talked last week with some concerned residents who live near Denair.

“We went out and met with them,” Chiesa recounted. “They brought their neighbors in because everybody there’s worried.”

Chiesa said farmers, including himself, also are worried about their own wells going dry.

“We’re in an emergency situation,” warned Neil Hudson, an Oakdale resident who leads a private group of concerned citizens called the Stanislaus Water Coalition. Hudson also is a member of Stanislaus County’s Water Advisory Committee, which advises the Board of Supervisors on groundwater issues.

“The committee process is so slow, but the urgency is now,” Hudson said. He wants Stanislaus to create a systematic reporting system to enable county officials to plot where wells are going dry so trouble clusters can be spotted quickly.

Just looking at well permit data isn’t enough, Hudson explained, because homeowners often wait months before finding an available driller to dig their well and file the required paperwork. Some never pull permits because they can’t afford new wells, and others simply extend their well pipes low enough to reach water again – which doesn’t require a permit.

‘It’s not my fault’

Cheri Enos wants more than just a dry well reporting system established.

“There needs to be regulation to monitor this (and determine) how many wells can be put in and how much water they can take out of them,” suggested Enos, whose home southwest of Hickman has a well that’s going dry. “They need to do this really soon because there’s going to be a whole bunch more of us in the same boat.”

Enos said her well has about 1 foot of water left, and pump experts have told her that will be gone within a couple of weeks. She’s been advised that a new well and pump will cost her up to $19,000, and may take more than three months to drill.

“It’s not my fault,” said Enos, who thinks agriculture is consuming too much water. “The biggest culprit is the large farms. They’re just sucking all the water from the rest of us.”

Stanislaus Farm Bureau President Wayne Zipser is struggling with that perception.

“We’ve got to act quickly to figure out how to handle this,” said Zipser, who also is chairman of the county Water Advisory Committee. “This drought is consuming all of us. It breaks my heart to see folks suffering.”

It’s the drought that’s really to blame, and the reduction it has caused in surface water supplies, according to Zipser. When irrigation districts cut back water allocations, he said, farmers increase groundwater pumping to keep their crops alive.

“The marriage between surface water and groundwater is huge,” Zipser stressed. Like most California farmers, he emphasized the need to store more water during wet years to meet the state’s demands during droughts. “We as a society have ignored that water storage is a major issue.”

In 1977, during the last major drought, Zipser recalled how Stanislaus farmers also drilled a multitude of new water wells. After that drought ended, he said, most farmers stopped using those wells.

Now farmers are drilling and pumping again, and Zipser said he knows some domestic wells may be impacted because of it. “I think about it every day,” he said. “We’re going to look to try to find funding for these folks (whose wells have gone dry).”

Zipser said many of the farmers who pulled well permits recently did so for fear the county may soon impose a drilling moratorium. “They’re trying to protect themselves from what might happen if we have another dry year,” he said, noting that many of those wells may end up never being drilled.

‘Stick with the science’

Some people believe Stanislaus already may have too many agricultural wells.

Environmentalist and retired lawyer Jerry Cadagan of Sonora has filed a legal action against Stanislaus County and more than a dozen of its farmers regarding well permits issued last fall. His lawsuit contends Stanislaus is out of compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.

“It is unfortunate that the county continues to issue new permits at record rates without having any idea what the environmental and other consequences might be,” Cadagan said.

Calls for a drilling moratorium are premature, according to Withrow. “If we were to jump to a moratorium, the only ones who would benefit would be the attorneys, who would make a lot of money,” the supervisor predicted. He is not convinced that agricultural pumping is to blame for domestic wells going dry. “It’s the drought more than anything that affects these wells.”

Withrow, who grows grapes near Modesto and almonds in Fresno County, noted that many of the failing domestic wells are old and shallow. He said farmers typically pump from deeper aquifers that don’t impact domestic wells.

“We’ve got to stick with the science and get past the emotions,” Withrow advised. He said establishing groundwater management policies in Stanislaus is going to take time. “But I know it’s hard to have patience when you’re getting your water from a garden hose running through your window.”


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