Dry wells turning into a crisis

The Turlock Irrigation District pump pours thousands of gallons of groundwater per minute into a canal near the district’s Taylor Substation off Taylor Road in Denair. Shallower wells at several nearby ranchettes have gone dry.
The Turlock Irrigation District pump pours thousands of gallons of groundwater per minute into a canal near the district’s Taylor Substation off Taylor Road in Denair. Shallower wells at several nearby ranchettes have gone dry. Modesto Bee file

Wells are going dry. Something must be done, and we believe it is up to the county to do it.

Many rural residents are being forced to spend thousands of dollars to reach receding water tables. It’s happening throughout the San Joaquin Valley, as both farmers and water districts pump furiously to augment drought-diminished supplies of surface water.

Stanislaus County officials sympathize but so far have done little to help. County representatives visit homes with dry wells and often find old pumps or pipes. Usually, they tell the resident to get in line for a new well. But it’s a long line.

Around 70 county residents have applied for new well permits, many more are running hoses to neighbors or hauling in water as they wait for well-drilling companies. Some can’t afford new wells, so their only choices are to borrow, move or sue. Many have lived in their communities for years and think suing would be a breach of etiquette.

The Water Advisory Committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors developed 17 specific recommendations the board accepted in June. But the committee focused on developing a long-term sustainable groundwater plan. The recommendations were virtually silent on failing wells, promising only to “evaluate and recommend alternatives for relief funding related to domestic well impacts.”

So far, that has amounted to posting a link on the county website to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program for people who meet low-income requirements. Even that is hard to find.

“We’re just going to get more and more of these (dry wells),” Supervisor Jim DeMartini said recently. “Our Water Advisory Committee hasn’t even admitted there’s a problem yet.”

Worse, some officials have mischaracterized groundwater pools. They have referred to “contained groundwater basins,” meaning a pocket of water encapsulated by impermeable structures such as clay. There are extremely few “contained basins” in Stanislaus County. Instead, most groundwater pools are connected either vertically or laterally. So, when groundwater is pumped, it moves sideways or down through the gravels and sand to the pump. Where groundwater levels are not falling, it’s usually because the pumps are closer to a river or reservoir. The farther from the surface-water source, the less groundwater is replenished and the more likely wells will go dry.

It’s happened in Denair, Ceres, Hughson and now Valley Home. Some well drillers are prioritizing jobs, taking residential first (though they’re the least profitable), then farmers with cattle and finally those with only crops.

An environmental group has sued the county to halt permitting of new wells. The Bee did not endorse that plan, saying a moratorium would tie up the WAC’s efforts in court. But we also asked that supervisors address the immediate problem of failing wells – and that’s not being done.

Official attitudes about groundwater are changing. Last week, California Superior Court Judge Allen Sumner ruled that unregulated groundwater pumping near the Scott River had harmed the river, and thus the public. His ruling said that groundwater supplying the river belonged to the public – not solely to those who owned the pumps above. That means Siskiyou County has a duty to protect that groundwater for the benefit of all.

Here, the biggest pumps belong to irrigation districts, which are trying to satisfy demand from their farmers. And a lot more pumping is being done by farmers for recently planted almond orchards outside of water districts. Without irrigation water, their business plan is to draw all the water from the aquifers.

Apparently, it’s paying off. Two weeks ago, the National Agricultural Service predicted farmers would harvest 2.1 billion pounds, the largest almond crop ever. Those nuts could generate $6 billion.

Not every farmer with new trees is pumping. It requires slightly less water to grow almonds than to irrigate pasture, so farmers who convert irrigated pasture to trees are simply redirecting their water.

California says the “highest” use of water is for human health and sanitation. If your faucet is dry, you won’t stay healthy; if your toilet won’t flush, that’s unsanitary.

If a county won’t act to protect its citizens, then this is headed to a courtroom near you as residents will be forced to sue. That could lead to court-ordered remedies, including suspending all new wells, monitoring all pumping, providing emergency water and mitigation for wells that have gone dry.

If that happens, who pays? Most likely all the county’s taxpayers, and not just those who have benefited from that bountiful harvest.

Instead of waiting, county officials should recognize the emergency. The county knows exactly where those wells have been drilled and the size of the pumps. It needs to use that information.

The irrigation districts should step up, too, helping anyone affected by their pumps to find a more reliable water source. If a nearby farmer has caused the water table to drop, the county should explain the situation and hope the farmer realizes that being a good neighbor means helping in a crisis.

By being proactive, county and water district officials will be protecting us all.