Groundwater Crisis

Jump in well permits in Stanislaus County triggers calls for moratorium

Drilling is pictured on Crabtree Road near Highway 132 east of Waterford, Ca.
Drilling is pictured on Crabtree Road near Highway 132 east of Waterford, Ca.

Stanislaus County’s groundwater drilling boom continues.

Five times more new irrigation wells have been approved since January than were issued during the same four months last year, drilling permit data obtained by The Modesto Bee show.

At least 170 new agricultural wells were authorized from Jan. 1 through April 23 this year, compared with only 34 approved during that period in 2013.

Besides those big irrigation wells, an additional 34 smaller domestic wells also have been authorized this year. That’s three times more than last year.

“This is very concerning because we don’t know what the environmental effect will be from all this drilling,” said Jerry Cadagan, who leads the environmental group suing Stanislaus County and more than a dozen farmers over well drilling. “When are we going to run out of water in our aquifers?”

Stanislaus’ well-drilling surge began in the fall when rumors about a possible moratorium began spreading. From September through December, about 159 irrigation well permits were issued – which set a record.

That record’s been broken the past four months, and there’s no indication the rush to drill is slowing.

The county’s recently formed Water Advisory Committee will discuss the high permit volume at its meeting 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Kirk Lindsey Center, 1020 10th St., Suite 102, Modesto.

“The surge in drilling permits last fall was one of the factors that prompted the formation of this committee,” said Mike Lynch, who is among the group’s 21 members.

Lynch said the committee has been “struggling to move as fast as we can” to come up with consensus solutions to groundwater concerns, but he’s ready to consider a permit moratorium – at least for now.

County Supervisor Jim DeMartini also thinks a drilling moratorium is warranted, at least on eastern Stanislaus land outside the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts.

“That’s something that should be done until we get good hydrology models” to determine the impact wells there are having, DeMartini said. “I don’t think it’s in our best interest to keep on developing new land out there because it’s totally dependent on groundwater.”

DeMartini, who farms in the Turlock Irrigation District, said so many new wells “are being punched in the ground that overdraft is a concern.” He said mostly orchards are being planted, which is a problem because such permanent crops can’t be fallowed during dry years.

“At some point, I think the state of California is going to step in if the county doesn’t,” DeMartini predicted.

Cadagan and the environmental groups he’s working with are considering increasing the legal heat to prod county officials into action. “We’re thinking about expanding the lawsuit” to include more of the farmers who recently obtained well drilling permits, he said.

One of the environmental groups suing is the California Sport Fishing Alliance. Cadagan said that group is particularly “concerned about the impact well drilling is having on the tributaries to the San Joaquin River.”

He said many of Stanislaus County’s groundwater wells end up sucking water out of the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, and “that reduces the fresh water flowing downriver to the Delta.”

The well drilling permit data analyzed by The Bee indicates there’s an increase in wells going in throughout the county. Most of the agricultural wells approved since January, however, are going into rural areas east of Highway 99.

That includes 31 near Modesto, 28 near Oakdale, 21 near Waterford, 16 near Turlock, 15 near Hughson, 15 near Ceres, 9 near Denair, 5 near Hickman and a couple near Empire and Roberts Ferry.

The rest are west of Highway 99.