Stanislaus supervisor calls for relief for residents with dry wells

07/29/2014 7:12 PM

07/29/2014 7:13 PM

Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien said the county should consider providing relief to residents whose wells have gone dry and needs an emergency action plan in case drought conditions worsen this summer.

County staff members had started to explore potential loans for financially distressed homeowners before O’Brien’s comments at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The county’s Water Advisory Committee is scheduled today to discuss a possible loan program for residents who can’t afford new wells and staff members are expected to bring proposals to county leaders soon.

O’Brien also called on the county Office of Emergency Services to prepare a contingency plan in the event that entire rural neighborhoods lose their wells later this summer.

Emergency relief could include portable showers, drinking water and other assistance, the supervisor suggested.

O’Brien represents areas outside Oakdale where many domestic wells have failed after three consecutive drought years. More homes in the Oakdale area – and other parts of the county with sinking groundwater levels – could be jeopardized if water use intensifies in August.

“We are getting into the bad part of the summer and need to look at immediate actions we can take,” O’Brien said.

The board approved a letter asking the state for a temporary waiver on air quality rules for well-drilling rigs. O’Brien said homeowners are waiting two to six months to replace residential wells because drillers are stretched thin, and more rigs are needed in California to hasten the work.

Only drilling rigs with clean-burning engines can meet the state’s air quality regulations. The county will ask the governor’s office, Legislature and Air Resources Board to consider allowing rigs with dirtier engines to drill wells for desperate homeowners for 12 to 18 months.

County Chief Executive Officer Stan Risen said the Office of Emergency Services first will look at other counties’ drought contingency plans before crafting one for Stanislaus. Residents with dry wells have been forced to use bottled water and are not able to take showers or wash their clothes. Some affected homeowners are seniors on fixed incomes, including a man near Denair whose only source of water was a 200-foot hose run from a neighbor’s house.

No data is available on the number of domestic wells that have dried up. A Bee review of county records showed that 69 permits were issued for new domestic wells in the first six months of this year, but it’s believed homeowners unable to afford replacement wells don’t take out permits. Some residents have said they were quoted prices of $17,000 to $19,000 for a new well and pump system.

Supervisor Terry Withrow, who serves on the Water Advisory Committee, said a possible source of loan money for replacing wells is the county’s economic development bank. The committee will discuss other potential sources, such as community development funds, and procedures to verify financial need.

Risen said the county won’t wait for the water panel’s next 100-day report. County leaders will see proposals from their staff within a couple of weeks, he said.

Supervisor Vito Chiesa was optimistic the worst was behind the county. He said irrigation of almond orchards should taper off next month and he had not heard new reports of dry wells from constituents near Denair in the past month.

Officials said many of the failed domestic wells in the county are shallow. The drought has resulted in less surface water for agriculture and more pumping of groundwater to irrigate thirsty crops, putting stress on aquifers.

Tuesday, supervisors adopted a water resources plan for eastern Stanislaus County to meet requirements for outside funding for groundwater management efforts. The plan was developed by Modesto, Ceres, Hughson and Turlock to be eligible for grants from the state water bond act of 2006. Other local agencies may use the plan for grant applications, staff members said.

The county’s Water Advisory Committee, formed to advise the county on groundwater issues, will recommend grant proposals to pay for activities such as groundwater monitoring or efforts to replenish aquifers.

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