Oakdale Irrigation District board leader says ‘disaster is imminent,’ urges halt to new wells

11/19/2013 6:31 PM

11/19/2013 6:31 PM

Warning that “disaster is imminent,” the Oakdale Irrigation District’s board president on Tuesday called for an immediate moratorium on new water wells in Stanislaus County.

“You cannot on a consistent basis take more water out of the ground basin than you put in,” Frank Clark told a standing-room-only crowd, which came out for an OID presentation about the region’s groundwater situation. “We need a moratorium on new wells until more and better data is available.”

Clark acknowledged that his irrigation district has no authority to regulate pumping, but he said Stanislaus’s Board of Supervisors has the power to stop the proliferation of industrial-sized pumps draining down the aquifer.

“Call your county supervisor. Make his phone fall off the hook,” Clark urged the audience. “Time is of the essence. Pick up your phone and rattle some cages.”

This isn’t the first public demand for a drilling moratorium. Turlock’s City Council recently requested the same thing.

What’s causing concern is repeated reports of domestic wells going dry, scientific studies showing dramatically falling groundwater levels throughout the San Joaquin Valley and millions of trees being planted on what had been dry range land.

Many of those young orchards are being nurtured by newly drilled water wells.

“This is a severe problem. Disaster is imminent, whether it’s five years, 10 years or 50 years away,” Clark stressed. “We’ve got to stop the pumping until we get a grip on what’s happening.”

Clark’s fellow OID directors, however, didn’t join his plea for action. They were mostly silent after listening to a staff report that explained how the region’s water tables are falling despite the irrigation district’s ongoing efforts to recharge them.

The crowd, which included many farmers and ranchers, also remained quiet.

After the meeting, a Stanislaus County Farm Bureau representative predicted that the moratorium threat will trigger a flood of drilling permit applications. That seems to be happening already: Last month, more than 60 well permits were requested, which is 3½ times the usual amount.

“What are you going to do? You have your investment and your livelihood to protect. You have to (pump) to stay alive,” said Tom Orvis, the bureau’s governmental affairs director. “If you have a dry winter, there will be more pumping. Period.”

Orvis said the California Farm Bureau Federation’s position is that “the overlying landowner has water rights,” so it opposes pumping restrictions.

But there’s growing concern that agriculture is dangerously draining down the aquifer. And more and more rural homeowners this year are reporting problems with their domestic wells.

Charlotte Williams is not sure who or what is to blame, but her home’s well went dry three weeks ago. She and her husband, Kenneth, have lived on Orsi Road near Oakdale’s eastern edge for 40 years. They get OID irrigation water, but they depend on well water for drinking.

“Our well does not replenish any more,” Williams told The Bee this week. “There’s no water in the aquifer now ... not even enough to fill up the dog dish.”

As the Williamses wait for overbooked drillers to find time to dig them a deeper well, they’re getting by on water flowing through a hose from a neighbor’s property. And they’ve brought in a portable toilet and bottled water.

“Nobody’s told us why our well went dry. I just assume it has to do with so many orchards and deep wells going in,” Charlotte Williams said. She recalled how until a few years ago the properties east of her home contained dry pasture with only “cows and rattlesnakes on it.”

“Now it’s just trees, trees and more trees,” Williams said. But even though she expects to pay $8,000 to $15,000 to replace her well, Williams opposes pumping restrictions. “The farmers have to make a living, too. ...We don’t need a lot of new regulations.”

OID General Manager Steve Knell also is leery of new pumping restrictions – at least within the border of the Oakdale Irrigation District.

“OID is a net positive contributor to the underground aquifer,” Knell said. But he agreed that “despite our efforts and the efforts of the other irrigation districts, groundwater levels continue to decline.”

Knell said if any temporary moratorium on drilling is needed, “it should be focused on those areas which are solely extractors of groundwater.”

“Any moratorium, temporary or otherwise, should not apply to areas served by an irrigation district, which are not part of the problem,” Knell told The Bee. “The irrigation districts are doing a great job in benefiting the aquifer, and their constituents should not be impacted by the actions of others who are not.”

Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien, who represents Oakdale, said county officials are on “a fact-finding mission” to figure out what must to be done to protect the region’s groundwater.

“All options are on the table,” O’Brien told The Bee. “We need to make governing decisions based on fact, not on emotion or opinion, but it needs to be quick.”

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