Dry wells at Stanislaus homes triggering government action

07/30/2014 8:02 PM

07/30/2014 8:04 PM

There’s a flurry of action on multiple fronts to address the spreading problem of domestic wells going dry in Stanislaus County:

• Rural homeowners are being encouraged to tell county officials if they’re having well trouble so Stanislaus’ dry spots can be mapped.
• The region’s overbooked well drillers are being urged to make domestic wells a priority over the drilling of agricultural wells.
• State regulators are being asked to relax air pollution control standards enough to enable more drilling rigs to be used to dig those new domestic wells.
• Preliminary steps are being taken to set up some kind of locally funded lending program to help rural homeowners pay for those deeper wells.
• And all Stanislaus well owners are being advised to find out more about their water systems so they can take preventive actions to avoid pumping problems.

Stanislaus’ Water Advisory Committee focused much of its Wednesday meeting on what to do about the expanding groundwater crisis. That’s a switch for the committee, which previously had spent little time talking about domestic wells going dry.

“We’ve got a fire we’ve got to put out,” stressed Larry Byrd, who is on the committee and a member of the Modesto Irrigation District board. Byrd reported that three more domestic wells near Waterford went dry this week. “If you don’t have water, you’re a little afraid right now.”

Frightened Stanislaus homeowners started contacting The Modesto Bee more than a year ago about rural wells going dry, but apparently more and more of them now are demanding action from county officials.

“Everybody needs to know how hard we’re working on this now,” Stanislaus Supervisor Terry Withrow said. “It’s consuming us at this point, and it should be.”

Whether it’s the three-year drought, the expansion of big agricultural wells in Stanislaus, or a combination of the two to blame, the number of domestic wells going dry is increasing.

During the past seven months, at least 88 drilling permits for new domestic wells have been issued in Stanislaus.

“They’re almost all replacement wells,” confirmed well driller Sean Roddy, explaining how practically no new wells are going in for newly built homes.

Permits are not required for dry wells that can be fixed by simply lowering the well pump. And some homeowners with dry wells haven’t pulled their permits yet because there are not enough drillers available. So the total of dry wells in the county likely is higher.

To get a better understanding about how serious the groundwater problem is, the county wants homeowners to fill out as much information as they can on a “report of well problem” form posted online at www.StanCounty.com/er/pdf/report-well-problem-form.pdf. Those who don’t have access to the Internet can call (209) 525-6700.

Roddy said most rural homeowners don’t know much about their wells – such as how deep they are, what kind of pump they have, or how far down the groundwater level has fallen.

“Until you don’t have any water, people don’t get too concerned about their well,” said homeowner Joe Casey, whose rural well outside Waterford went dry last week. Now one of his neighbor’s wells also has started sucking up black sand. “We’ve got a drastic problem out there on Tim Bell Road.”

Casey attended Wednesday’s committee meeting to share his story. During the past couple of years, two new orchards near his home led to the drilling of eight large agricultural wells, and he said nearby Modesto Irrigation District wells have been pumping nonstop this summer.

Casey suspects all that water being pumped for farmers is what’s causing his well problems, not the drought.

“I never had a problem with my well back during the 1977 drought,” recalled Casey, who has lived in his home 37 years. Now he’s learned that it will take two months before he can get a deeper well drilled.

“When we talk to these homeowners, we hear they’re being told there’s a two- or three-month wait. That’s not acceptable,” said Walter Ward, Stanislaus’ water resources manager.

Ward said he is setting up a meeting next week with all the region’s well drillers to encourage them to make domestic wells their priority.

The backlog problem won’t be easy to solve, Roddy warned.

“There are not enough people, time or equipment to meet all the demand for new wells,” Roddy explained. He said busy drillers must choose between putting in $100,000 agricultural wells for farmers or $10,000 wells for homeowners. “That’s what we debate every day.”

Complicating the shortage of drillers are California’s strict air pollution control laws, which limit the kind of drilling equipment that can be used. Ward said Stanislaus leaders are writing a letter to state officials seeking temporary waivers to expand the number of drilling rigs that can be used to drill domestic wells.

Withrow said county officials also are trying to arrange a local source of funding for homeowners who may need assistance to cover the cost of new wells and pumps, which can total more than $20,000.

“We have an economic development bank,” said Withrow, noting how it might be able to make loans. “We’ve got to figure out a way to help pay for those wells.”

To prevent more wells from going dry, officials want well owners to learn as much as they can about their wells.

One source of information is the original well log filled out by the driller after the well was installed. That confidential information is stored by the state Department of Water resources, but the well’s current owner can get a copy of it.

To get well logs, owners must fill out the form found here: www.water.ca.gov/pubs/groundwater/well_completion_report_request-owner/wcr_request_owner_20110518.pdf.

“Everybody who has a well should have information about their well,” advised committee member Ray Kablanow. “This is a tool that can be used by everybody, not just those with problems.”

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