Stanislaus County prevails in water wells lawsuit

Stanislaus County need not require environmental studies each time someone applies to dig a water well, a judge ruled recently in a high-stakes lawsuit.

However, Judge Roger Beauchesne – noting widespread concern over the health of aquifers – wants the county to provide well construction data during the next year, allowing him to monitor application approvals and denials.

“The issue is of sufficient seriousness and importance to require the court’s jurisdictional oversight,” Beauchesne wrote in the ruling, dated Dec. 16, while acknowledging that a judge’s ongoing involvement in such matters is “unusual.”

The ruling is a victory for county officials who have “properly exercised oversight in issuing well construction permits for some thirty years,” the judge wrote.

(The county’s) procedure for determining the need for (environmental) review is thoughtful, legally appropriate and representative of its proper role as steward of our water resources.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne

The lawsuit had claimed that the permitting policy was unlawful because it allowed hundreds of new wells without determining whether they might harm the environment. Warnings would surface in studies complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, said plaintiffs including Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The first group was formed by retired lawyer Jerry Cadagan of Sonora specifically to foster the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2014, followed by a second targeting more than a dozen farmers who had drilled huge agricultural wells in 2013. Dozens of private home wells have gone dry in competition with larger wells drilled to feed millions of almond and walnut saplings planted in recent years, particularly in hills on the county’s east side.

The second lawsuit settled out of court in August 2014 when most defendants agreed to pay $190,000 toward the study of groundwater conditions. Cadagan died in an apparent suicide in May, while San Francisco attorney Thomas Lippe pressed on with the first lawsuit against the county. Neither he nor county attorneys could be reached Tuesday.

The extraordinary circumstances surrounding drought in California have created a microscopic emphasis on our water resources, and rightly so. The Central Valley has often been referred to as the ‘bread basket of the nation’ as well as of the world.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne

State law requires that counties make sure wells are constructed properly, not that counties regulate pumping, the county contended – although some measure of monitoring is coming thanks to state laws more recently enacted. Beauchesne agreed, saying county officials “have taken their responsibility for stewardship of perhaps the Central Valley’s most precious resource – water – seriously.”

County officials, worried about the water table and drought, adopted a groundwater mining ordinance in 2014 and adopted guidelines for a new well-permitting process in August; whether the latter was prompted by the lawsuit is debatable but ultimately irrelevant, Beauchesne said.

The county is seeking a $250,000 state grant to help pay for a $585,000 groundwater study in preparation for other state requirements including a “groundwater sustainability plan” due in 2022; the rest would be paid by the county, cities, water districts and agribusiness.

This new groundwater demand (from nut trees in east Stanislaus County) has caused significant public concern.

Grant application, Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources

The grant application notes “significant stress on groundwater resources,” particularly on the east side, where more than 60,000 acres of former grazing land have been transformed into nut orchards. The application also notes “medium to high potential for future subsidence” on the east side, or land sinking because of overpumping.

“Information compiled by the county suggests that groundwater levels have fallen in some areas by tens of feet in recent years,” the application says.

In his ruling, Beauchesne stopped short of requiring well construction data for the coming year, opting instead to “suggest” that the county provide him quarterly reports on the number of applications, as well as how many were rejected and why, and the number deemed to require special environmental study.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390