Environmental lawsuit threatened if Stanislaus County doesn’t revoke well-drilling permits

01/09/2014 9:29 AM

01/09/2014 8:34 PM

Two environmental lawyers are demanding Stanislaus County officials immediately stop issuing new water well drilling permits without first reviewing what impacts they could have on the environment.

They also want the county to revoke 61 large irrigation wells approved during the past five months.

If Stanislaus officials refuse, the lawyers warn they will file a lawsuit within two weeks, claiming the county has violated provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act.

The lawyers, Jerry Cadagan of Sonora and Thomas N. Lippe of San Francisco, say they are representing Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources, a group Cadagan recently founded.

They said they fear all the new Stanislaus wells may be causing “serious overdraft of the aquifer, possibly resulting in dry wells for existing well owners; adverse effects on flows in the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, including downstream water quality issues; reduction of levels in surface storage facilities (like Woodward Reservoir and) contamination of groundwater supplies.”

Some of the farmers named in the complaint consider their charges frivolous and their demands unrealistic.

“These wells already have been drilled and they’re operating,” said Wendell Naraghi, whose Naraghi Farms has five well permits – three near Oakdale, two near Denair – on the target list. “The trees already are planted.”

Naraghi said the lawyers may not understand that farmers must order their nut trees two or three years in advance of planting, and obtaining the well drilling permit is one of the last stages in a long process of developing new orchards. He said he already has spent about $140,000 to drill each well, and he followed all of the county’s rules.

“I’m doing the same thing my family has done the last 60 years in Stanislaus County: planting almonds,” said Naraghi, whose family has about 4,000 acres of nut orchards in the county. “We’re trying to farm in a regulated society. We’ve done whatever has been required of us.”

Formal letters – giving “notice of intent to commence CEQA action regarding well construction permits” – were sent to Naraghi, about a dozen other Stanislaus farmers and managers of the county’s Department of Environmental Resources this week.

Included in the legal challenge are drilling permits issued for 61 new wells on farmland owned by: A&A Ranches, A&T Ranches, AA Ranches, Alldrin Brothers, Alldrin Orchards, Joe Areias, Beyer Ranch Family, John Brichetto, Louis Brichetto, Millcreek Farming/Stueve Brothers, Naraghi Farms, S&R Rodoni Farms, W.J. Merrill Co. and Woolfe Farms.

The lawyers want those farmers to agree to have their well-drilling permits revoked and to conduct CEQA reviews before getting any new permits.

The threatened lawsuit is just the latest salvo in a growing battle over groundwater in Stanislaus County.

There’s been a surge in well drilling this year, particularly for new almond and walnut orchards being planted on formerly dry pastures in eastern and northeastern Stanislaus.

About 150 well permits were issued this fall – four times more than normal – and most of them were for giant irrigation systems that can pump thousands of gallons of groundwater per minute.

With California’s drought deep into its third year and no rain in sight, community concern is rising over repeated reports about falling groundwater levels.

All Stanislaus residents rely on groundwater (including Modesto city dwellers), and there have been periodic but seemingly increasing reports this year of private wells going dry.

“There’s no doubt we’ve been overdrafting our aquifers for years” said Jim DeMartini, chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. “I think we should have dealt with this issue before we ever got to this.”

DeMartini, who is an almond grower himself, said he is concerned that thousands of additional acres of trees are being planted on land that will depend on pumping well water.

Supervisor Vito Chiesa agreed that Stanislaus has a serious groundwater issue.

“It’s not new, but it’s getting worse,” Chiesa said. Rather than tie the issue up in a lawsuit, however, Chiesa said the county should be allowed to continue working on the problem through its Water Advisory Committee, which is in the process of being formed.

“We’re hiring a water manager ... and we’re working at warp speed” to find solutions, Chiesa said. “We need to do this once and do it right.”

The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau is backing that committee process.

“Important decisions such as this are always more successful when a consensus is reached through the public process rather than by a court,” said Ron Peterson, a Turlock almond grower and dairy rancher who is president of the Farm Bureau.

But DeMartini, who will chair the 21-member Water Advisory Committee, said he fears the group is too large: “I don’t know how they’re ever going to get consensus.”

What impact a legal battle over water well permits could have on the committee’s groundwater proposals isn’t known.

Attorneys threatening that litigation are optimistic about its outcome.

“We believe a lawsuit requiring CEQA review of well permits is an effective way to protect the environment,” they told The Modesto Bee in an emailed response to questions Thursday. According to them, San Mateo, Napa and Butte counties already require environmental reviews before allowing new water wells.

The attorneys said they decided to focus on just some of the largest wells approved this fall rather than trying to get all the drilling permits revoked.

“We don’t have the resources to pursue legal recourse to get environmental review for over 200 permits issued in the last six months,” they said. “Maybe someone else will step up and challenge the rest.”

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