Drillers chase falling water in North County aquifer crisis

Almost five years of data on well drilling in the Paso Robles basin show the greatest concentration — and the most severe depths — in the hard-hit area east of the city limits

dsneed@thetribunenews.comAugust 25, 2013 

Brian Bullard and Tom Vierra of Miller Drilling Co. in Paso Robles drill a 400-foot well for the Cross family in Creston.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

An estimated 375 wells have been drilled in the North County during the past five years — with the deepest of them in a swath east of Paso Robles where the aquifer levels have dropped the most since 1997, according to a Tribune review of county well permit data.

The data from the county Environmental Health Department also show:

• About 258 of the wells are in the Paso Robles groundwater basin; about 117 others are outside the basin’s western boundary.

• The bulk of the wells — nearly 61 percent — were private wells, with the remainder being irrigation wells and a handful of municipal wells. Private wells are those used by homes and businesses.

• The wells are scattered throughout the west side of the Paso Robles groundwater basin and show that the problem of wells going dry is common in the area and not just limited to isolated pockets.

• In the area between Paso Robles and Whitley Gardens and south of Highway 46, there is a group of wells 300 feet or deeper, which are normally drilled by vineyards.

The data offer one more indicator that the groundwater basin and residents who use it are facing an unprecedented crisis. Water levels in most areas of the basin have gone down 70 feet or more since 1997, according to data accumulated by the county Department of Public Works.

The public records requested by The Tribune focused on completed well permits issued by county Environmental Health over the past five years. This is one of the few sources of data on wells in the basin because they are not monitored or otherwise subject to permitting.

Environmental Health officials must inspect and seal each new well to ensure it is sanitary.
County Environmental Health officials say there is a new trend in which deeper wells are being drilled. A random sampling of well-depth data of 67 wells by Environmental Health from May 2012 through June 2013 shows an average depth of 550 feet, with the deepest at 1,100 feet.

“As a direct result of declining groundwater elevations, we are seeing folks having to drill new wells to a deeper depth,” said Richard Lichtenfels, county supervising environmental health specialist.

The county Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing Tuesday to consider whether to adopt emergency land use rules to limit groundwater pumping as well as other steps to deal with the growing crisis of domestic wells going dry in the basin.

The hearing is expected to last all day and be very contentious, with rural homeowners urging sweeping restrictions on groundwater pumping while vintners argue against them, citing the damage they could do to the important wine industry. Because it is an emergency ordinance, all four supervisors must vote to approve it. One supervisory seat is vacant.

The crisis in the groundwater basin has gotten so severe that it has attracted the attention of the State Water Resources Control Board, which sent a letter to county supervisors urging them to take action.

“I believe you have the information to understand the threat to the public and the environment, and urge you to take immediate action to stabilize the situation by approving the (emergency) ordinance,” wrote Thomas Howard, the board’s executive director.

Homeowners in the basin say that new wells drilled in the basin are only the tip of the iceberg. Many homeowners have had to lower the pump in their well to prevent it from going dry, while others are trucking in water or struggling with underperforming wells that barely meet domestic needs.

The data do not indicate which wells are new ones and which are replacement wells for a shallower one that has gone dry. The county is now asking for that information, but the public records request does not contain it.

The Tribune also asked for additional information about each of the wells from the driller’s well completion report, such as their total depth and the name of the property owner, but was told that this is proprietary information and not available to the public.

The well data show that the number of wells drilled varied rather widely from year to year from 2009 to July of this year. The number of wells peaked at 116 in 2012.

When county supervisors began considering emergency restrictions on new drilling, a rush of property owners applied with the county for new well permits. The county received more than 100 well permit applications in a two-week period.

That rate slowed considerably but has picked up again as the date of the supervisors’ hearing approaches. Since Tuesday, 49 new well applications had been received.

“We are getting calls from the public wanting to know if there’s going to be a moratorium on well drilling and how do they go about submitting paperwork for a well permit,” Lichtenfels said. “Callers are saying some well drilling contractors have a four-month backlog to finish before they get to them.”

One of those is Miller Drilling Co. of Templeton. The company stopped taking new work several weeks ago and has about 60 jobs lined up.

“The pipeline is full,” said Kurt Bollinger, who manages the business.

Some vineyards are drilling through the Paso Robles groundwater basin and into the underlying Santa Margarita formation to reach water, Lichtenfels said. Such wells can be 1,500 to 2,000 feet deep and cost $300,000 to drill.

“Wells being cased with special anti-corrosion metal alloys can run as much as $450 per foot just for the casing material, and the very deep wells need the added strength of metal casing, as the normally used PVC casing doesn’t perform as well despite being corrosion- proof,” he said.

Water from these deeper wells often contains impurities, such as boron. As a result, that water is often blended at the surface in ponds to lower the level of impurities. Drillers must
also take steps to ensure that water from a deep well does not leak into the upper aquifer and contaminate it, Lichtenfels said.

What supervisors will consider at Tuesday’s meeting

When the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meets Tuesday, it will consider taking two main actions to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The first is whether to adopt an urgency ordinance that could contain the following land use restrictions on all or part of the basin except the Atascadero sub-basin:

• A moratorium on new or expanded irrigated crop production and new development dependent on a well unless its water use is offset by a 2-to-1 ratio.

• Exemptions to the moratorium such as wells that are replacing old ones that have gone dry.

• Mandatory installation of meters on new wells to measure use.

• A moratorium on new agricultural ponds, reservoirs and dams.
The second is whether to update the groundwater basin management plan to take these other possible steps regarding the basin:

• Reduction or waiving of county fees for installation of a new well.

• Grants or low-interest loans to help homeowners pay for a new well.

• Trucking water to residents who need it from such sources as Nacimiento Lake and State Water Project.

• Establishment of a water management district for the basin.

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