Groundwater Crisis

Stanislaus County farmers agree to pay for groundwater study to settle environmental lawsuit

Environmental activists and a group of Stanislaus County farmers settled a lawsuit Wednesday over the drilling of groundwater wells to irrigate orchards.

The farmers – who predominately grow almonds in northern and eastern Stanislaus – agreed to contribute $190,000 toward the study of groundwater conditions in the county, plus cover assorted attorney fees and court costs.

“I view this as a win-win interim outcome of this litigation,” said Jerry Cadagan, a retired lawyer and Sonora resident who filed lawsuits this year against farmers and Stanislaus County leaders over well drilling. “I will not personally profit 1 cent from this agreement.”

Exactly how the $190,000 will be spent and what aspects of groundwater will be studied has not been determined, but Cadagan said he expects it to be used to hire “some real experts” to research the impact agricultural pumping is having on Stanislaus County’s aquifers and rivers.

“We can learn some very valuable information about groundwater,” Cadagan said, “and knowledge is power.”

His organization, called Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources, joined the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance in the lawsuit against assorted Stanislaus farmers who obtained well-drilling permits last fall.

More than 600 new well permits have been issued by the county over the past 11/2 years, and most of them are for irrigation.

The record-breaking pace of new ag wells also prompted the environmental groups to sue Stanislaus County. They want county officials to subject all future well-drilling requests to a California Environmental Quality Act review, which could determine what impact new wells might have on the groundwater supply.

That case against the county continues to weave its way through the court system.

The separate lawsuit against farmers was settled out of court.

Agreeing to that deal were farms owned by Alldrin Brothers, AA Ranches, Beyer Family Ranch, Louis Brichetto and the L&J Brichetto Trust, WJ Merrill Co., Naraghi Farms, Millcreek Farming/Stueve Bros., S&R Rodoni Farms and Woolf Farms.

Two of the farmers who were sued – John Brichetto and Joe Areias – had not agreed to the settlement deal as of Wednesday. Cadagan said the case against them will continue.

Almond grower Louis Brichetto, who did settle, said doing so “was a matter of economics.”

“They made the proposal to us,” Brichetto explained. “We wanted Stanislaus County’s Water Advisory Committee to get the settlement funds so the county (could do the groundwater study) in an unbiased way. But they wouldn’t go for that.”

Water Advisory Committee Chairman Wayne Zipser said Stanislaus needs more data about its groundwater supply. He expressed hope the settlement would be spent to produce that information.

“To the extent we gain knowledge about groundwater ... that’s a good thing,” agreed John Doering, Stanislaus County counsel. But he said the county will continue to fight the lawsuit over how it issues well-drilling permits.

“They’re trying to legislate from the bench, and that’s improper,” Doering said of the environmentalists. He said the county is working on groundwater sustainability through its Water Advisory Committee, which he considers preferable to seeking change through lawsuits.