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Stanislaus residents race to get well permits

The Steinegul well west of Walnut Avenue near Pleasant Valley Road pumps water into an OID canal on Friday afternoon (07-18-14) in Oakdale, CA.
The Steinegul well west of Walnut Avenue near Pleasant Valley Road pumps water into an OID canal on Friday afternoon (07-18-14) in Oakdale, CA. jlee@modbee.com

There’s a funny line in the staff report that accompanies the proposed groundwater ordinance on Tuesday’s Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors meeting agenda.

It says that when the new well-drilling rules eventually get approved, they’ll be “retroactive to Nov. 25, 2014, to prevent a race to obtain permits before the effective date of the ordinance.”

Too late for that.

The county’s already been flooded with well-drilling permit applications, all of which were approved under the current restriction-free standards.

More than 500 new water well permits have been issued in Stanislaus this year, including more than 100 since the start of October, county records show.

Yep, word spread quickly this fall that Stanislaus was considering tightening its standards for where new wells could be drilled.

Landowners – almost all of them farmers – rushed to pull permits for new wells throughout the county, especially around Oakdale.

Last Wednesday alone, Stanislaus issued permits for 14 new groundwater wells. That’s about as many wells as the county used to issue during an entire month.

Those who paid for permits have a year to drill those wells.

There’s a reason farmers wanted permission now even it they don’t drill until later. The county is considering requiring that those outside irrigation districts offer proof that drilling new wells on their land won’t cause “undesirable results” to groundwater.

Those who pull their drilling permits by Monday won’t have to consider the impacts their wells may have on others.

Declining groundwater levels, however, are causing serious concerns for lawmakers and costly problems for those who rely on wells for their drinking water.

After three years of drought, more than 100 domestic wells have gone dry in Stanislaus.

Just since January, at least 126 new domestic well drilling permits and 382 agricultural wells have been issued in the county, public records obtained by The Modesto Bee on Friday show.

Almost all the new domestic wells are to replace older, more shallow wells that stopped producing drinkable water.

The biggest cluster of dry domestic wells appears to be around Oakdale. In the Valley Home rural area north of town, for example, at least 11 homes were given drilling permits this year.

Valley Home residents who previously were able to pump drinkable water from 100 feet below the surface now say they’re having to drill down more than 400 feet to reach a secure water supply.

In all, at least 34 Oakdale-area domestic wells are in the process of being drilled, county records show.

Farmers, meanwhile, obtained at least 78 permits to drill new agricultural wells for irrigating crops around Oakdale and Valley Home this year. That’s the most of any region in Stanislaus.

About half of those Oakdale-area irrigation well permits were handed out this October and November, including many for ag land not far from Valley Home.

For example, Stanley Roche Ranch obtained permits Wednesday for 10 new wells on Sonora Road. Beyer Ranch obtained four permits for new wells on Frankenheimer Road in October and another three permits in November for wells on Sonora Road.

Another hot spot for new Oakdale ag wells is off Orange Blossom Road. Since spring, R.B. Ranches has gotten permits to drill 15 new ag wells there and on nearby Sonora Road. Last January, Alldrin Orchards also got seven well-drilling permits for Orange Blossom Road.

Meanwhile, in Stanislaus’ northern reaches that county records are calling Eugene, six new ag well permits were issued in October.

Such areas outside irrigation districts are what the proposed groundwater ordinance would target. That ordinance is supposed to help the county create a sustainable groundwater management plan.

Part of the ordinance would require gathering more data about how much groundwater wells are pumping.

Even trying to figure out where wells are is a challenge now. The county’s current well permit records, for instance, are inconsistent with how they identify where agricultural wells are located.

Example: Wells close to each other off River Road sometimes are identified as being in Westley, sometimes in Vernalis and sometimes in Patterson. Among those recently pulling drilling permits near that rural road is the West Stanislaus Irrigation District, which last month got permission to drill three new big wells there.

Some well permits that county records show are for agriculture may end up being used for something else in years to come.

For instance, two well permits were issued last month to Keystone Ranch LLC for land on Baldwin Road in Patterson. That’s near where all the big distribution centers – like Restoration Hardware and Amazon – are being built.

As of Thursday morning, county records show this is where the drilling permits were issued for new domestic wells: seven in Ceres, four in Crows Landing, 15 in Denair, seven in Hickman, 16 in Hughson, one in Knights Ferry, 14 in Modesto, four in Newman, 34 in Oakdale, six in Patterson, 10 in Turlock and eight in Waterford.

Another 16 permits were issued for what were labeled as domestic “new wells/destruction.” The Bee was not able to get clarification on what that means.

Of the new agricultural wells given permits this year, as of Thursday, here is where county records show they went: 17 in Ceres, 10 in Crows Landing, 19 in Denair, one in Empire, six in Eugene, one in Farmington, 10 in Hickman, one in “Home Valley,” 22 in Hughson, eight in Knights Ferry, four in La Grange, 67 in Modesto, 29 in Newman, 78 in Oakdale, 31 in Patterson, one in Salida, 22 in Turlock, four in Vernalis, one in “Warnerville,” 38 in Waterford and 12 in Westley.

Three industrial well drilling permits were issued in Modesto. Two permits for “new wells/destruction” were issued for irrigation wells in Ceres.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

On the Agenda

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, at 1010 10th St., Modesto. The following items are on the agenda:

▪  Receive annual report on mental health from Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

▪  Consider authorizing increase in contingency funds for Parklawn neighborhood sewer service improvements.

▪  Accept final draft of regional flood management plan for mid-San Joaquin River region.

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