Jeff Jardine: Stanislaus County looking for ways to help residents pay for replacement wells

08/16/2014 7:25 PM

08/16/2014 7:26 PM

Wells are going dry. Residential well owners are screaming and, in some cases, frustrated to tears.

When they confront the irrigation districts whose increased pumping of groundwater at the very least coincides with the spate of wells going dry, they are told they are on their own. You should have dug a deeper well years ago, before being surrounded by the acres and acres of new orchards.

When they ask for financial help, the answer is, sorry, no can do. Irrigation districts, Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell said, are prohibited by law from using ratepayer dollars to do such things as help replace private wells, even if it involves loaning money that would create a return on the investment. An irrigation district’s first and foremost responsibility is to agriculture, and most of the ranchettes losing wells aren’t considered ag enterprises.

In a third consecutive drought year, Lake Don Pedro is becoming Puddle Don Pedro. New Melones Reservoir, by this winter, will seem melon-size. People thirsting for the water that would help recharge the aquifers are furious that fish come first, according to the courts, meaning hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water flow downstream every year.

With surface water supplies in question, and so many new orchards needing water, the pumps are working overtime and with unknown ramifications. Even so, for the time being at least, California water law allows anyone to pump as much water as he wants on his own land. Water moves horizontally beneath the surface and isn’t owned by anyone until it is pumped out, Knell said.

So no irrigation district or farmer is doing anything illegal by pumping 24/7, regardless of the impacts on the well next door. When that well goes dry? Well, the resident just needs to spend roughly $20,000 after weeks or months of being on a driller’s waiting list.

All of this is pitting neighbor against neighbor, residential well owners against the farmers and irrigation districts. It’s enough to make Einstein’s theory of insanity seem pretty outdated. That is why county supervisors are looking into finding funds they can offer to help residents whose wells go dry.

Supervisors Bill O’Brien and Terry Withrow are among those researching ways the local government can ease the problem. They’ve talked with well drillers, asking them to bump affected residents to the head of their waiting lists. They are looking at low-interest loans for residents in need, possibly using the county’s economic development bank.

In an email he sent recently to O’Brien, Knell wondered openly how county counsel would interpret the law as it would pertain to special funds for wells. Knell cited Government Code 8314, which deals with the use of public funds and resources, and Section 6 of the state constitution, which details how charges and fees can be used or not used.

“The county has more flexibility than irrigation districts,” Knell wrote, “but I’d be curious none the less.”

Consider that governments already guarantee loans for everything from small businesses, home mortgages and college educations to rebuilding after natural disasters. Gov. Jerry Brown in January declared a state of emergency due to the drought.

Homes without running water can deteriorate into public health hazards. A dry well also devalues the resale value of the home which, in turn, lowers the taxable value.

Which is shakier? Creating a pool of public money that would be repaid, or at least recovered through a lien on the property when the property eventually is sold, with the money being used to provide water to an existing home? Or the fact that most of the people serving on the water advisory committee, irrigation districts and even the Board of Supervisors are involved in agriculture, yet vote or weigh in on issues that directly impact their businesses? The water advisory committee, to this point, has balked at monitoring ag well pumping and ground water levels.

I would hope that the ag industry, with revenues reaching nearly $3.7 billion in Stanislaus County in 2013 and which has been impervious to the recession, wouldn’t begrudge a neighboring residential property owner getting some financial aid to ease the costs to replace a well that went dry during a time when groundwater pumping is rampant.

Taking care of the problems at the local level, O’Brien said, is the best way to keep the state from getting involved.

“We think we can do a better job than the state,” he said. “We’re encouraging everybody to notify the county of wells going dry.”

The irrigation districts, O’Brien said, need to expand their boundaries to keep the surface water local, reducing the need to pump groundwater whenever and wherever possible. Likewise, he said, Stanislaus has to work with neighboring counties to monitor and reduce pumping from the aquifer.

“We’re told that’s what the future is, that whoever digs the deeper well gets the water,” O’Brien said. “We need a whole shift in philosophy. There’s no clear solution.”

And for a growing number of residents, that “no clear solution” reflects the conditions of their own dry wells.

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