Stanislaus groundwater lawsuit presses on despite activist’s possible suicide

This week’s death of a principal player in a high-stakes groundwater lawsuit against Stanislaus County will not affect the case, which continues to wind toward an October trial date.

Longtime water activist and retired environmental lawyer Jerry King Cadagan, 76, of Sonora was killed Sunday at Caltrain’s Atherton station, the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office confirmed. His death is being investigated as a suicide.

Cadagan had spearheaded the lawsuit, which challenges the county’s level of environmental scrutiny when granting permits to build wells. He was joined by San Francisco attorney Thomas Lippe; the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance; and Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources, a group Cadagan formed specifically to foster the lawsuit.

“Jerry’s loss is a huge loss for the environmental community in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley, but in terms of this lawsuit it will not affect that at all,” Lippe said Wednesday.

A second lawsuit brought by the same plaintiffs against more than a dozen farmers who had drilled wells in 2013 was settled out of court in August when most defendants agreed to pay $190,000 toward the study of groundwater conditions.

Both lawsuits were prompted by concern over the record pace of well drilling in east Stanislaus, where millions of almond saplings have been planted in recent years. Most are fed by groundwater, the extraction of which is not regulated in California. Critics fear huge wells could suck dry shallower neighboring wells, particularly as the drought worsens falling water tables.

The county should have required review under the California Environmental Quality Act, Cadagan and supporters said. County lawyers say the permit process is required only to make sure wells are constructed correctly, not to regulate groundwater pumping.

“I’m saddened to learn about Mr. Cadagan’s passing,” County Counsel John Doering said. “Though we may have had different positions, we recognize his passion to protect the waters of California. That’s a common goal shared by the county as well. We may have had different ideas on how to achieve that end result, but I think we were headed in the same direction.”

Cadagan had suffered injuries in a Thanksgiving auto crash in Manteca that killed his wife, Kristin Ann Sullivan Cadagan, 64. He was struck at 12:36 p.m. Sunday by a southbound train carrying 1,200 passengers, many involved in San Francisco’s popular Bay to Breakers footrace.

Two trains were canceled, a third was delayed 97 minutes and people were bused to other stations, Caltrain spokesman Will Reisman said. The tragedy brings Caltrain’s 2015 deaths to 11, already topping 10 in all of 2014, of which only one was ruled unintentional.

Friends and associates remembered Cadagan as a fearless advocate for policy involving water and fishing. He had been deeply involved, for example, in an unsuccessful attempt to block construction of the Stanislaus River’s New Melones Dam, finished in 1978.

“Whether restoring Hetch Hetchy, staving off New Melones Dam or simply trying to continue trout fishing in (San Francisco’s) Lake Merced, Jerry was a ceaseless agitator and defender of the public trust,” said biologist Bill Kier. He said Cadagan “didn’t come out front to feed his own ego” and championed the Stanislaus lawsuit from a deep-seated desire to protect an invaluable resource.

“He was passionate about California’s rivers,” said Tom Stokely of the California Water Impact Network. “We’ll miss him.”

Garth Stapley: (209) 578-2390