Monday, October 2, 2023

New State Policies for Drilling Wells Could Dramatically Increase Costs and Permitting Times for Mendocino County’s Farmers—Op-Ed

Monica Huettl has writing chops and a passion for telling the stories of Redwood Valley. Huettl recognizes the importance of municipal coverage taking on the task of attending Redwood Valley Municipal Advisory Meetings and has since broadened out to cover many aspects of inland Mendocino County’s water issues. 

[Map from the Ukiah Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Plan on Mendocino County Website]

On Tuesday evening well owners and well drillers gathered at Barra of Mendocino Winery to hear from Eric Cadaret of West Yost Associates, General Manager of the UVBGSA, and Marlayna Duley of the County Environmental Health Department. Glenn McGourty, District One Supervisor and Member of the Board of Directors of the UVBGSA, was also in attendance. This was the first workshop on changes in well-permitting procedures under Executive Order N-7-22 signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on March 28, 2022. The purpose of the workshop was to gather facts and share information. 

Paragraphs 9.a and 9.b of the Order will change the well permitting process and were the topic of the workshop. The new rules will not apply to wells that produce less than two acre-feet per year for individual domestic users, and wells that provide groundwater to public supply systems. 

Paragraph 9.a says that all permits for new wells or alterations of existing wells that pump more than two acre-feet per year, that are within a medium or high-priority groundwater sustainability basin will be subject to review by that basin’s groundwater sustainability agency. Much of inland Mendocino County sits on top of the Ukiah Valley Groundwater basin, a medium priority basin, which runs from the north part of Redwood Valley down to its southern border near McNab Creek, and is several miles wide from east to west.

Paragraph 9.b applies to the entire county and state. It says that permits for new wells or alterations of existing wells that pump more than two acre-feet per year will only be issued if they do not interfere with existing nearby wells or cause ground subsidence that would damage nearby infrastructure.

You can kiss goodbye to the one-page well permit application. Both paragraphs will mean more hoops to jump through and increased costs for well drillers and well owners. As Eric Cadaret stated at the meeting, the new rules are in response to some of the groundwater basins in the Central Valley being in a “death spiral” from overpumping. Ukiah’s groundwater is in pretty good shape and the goal is to keep it that way. The audience was full of experienced ag people, both well owners and drillers.

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Some highlights from the workshop:

  • Two Acre-Feet per year amounts to almost 685,000 gallons per year. Most households use between 2,000 and 5,000 gallons per month. Most domestic wells will not be affected by this order.
  • For wells that produce less than two acre-feet per year, does the definition of “domestic” include people on small acreage who use their well water to also water animals?
  • What is the definition of “nearby wells” and “nearby infrastructure” in the Order?
  • Well repair permits will need to be approved by both the County and the UVBGSA in a process that can take up to 90 days. What about emergency repairs where livestock or crops need immediate water? Do owners and well contractors need to wait for permit approval? Can simple repairs that do not increase the amount pumped be fast-tracked? Any wait time is too long in most cases.
  • While waiting for permit approval will property owners be able to have water hauled in? This is a concern because of new rules for water trucks instituted last year, prohibiting some water hauling.
  • How long will the monitoring period be when determining whether there is ground subsidence or interference with neighboring wells? 
  • On large acreages where there are no nearby wells, does the owner need to also drill a “test well” to monitor subsidence and interference?
  • If subsidence or interference is the reason for the permit is denied, it may be possible to apply for a new permit requesting a lower amount to be pumped.
  • The County needs to do a survey of all existing wells. They don’t know how many wells are actually out there.
  • Will well drillers be kept in the loop during the lengthy permitting process?
  • It already takes far longer than it should to get any sort of permit from the county. Calls go unanswered, there is not enough staff. Who is going to handle the new permitting process? If you put new rules in place to protect groundwater without staff to implement them, it amounts to nothing more than virtue signaling. Supervisor McGourty said that the County is hoping to hire a water resource team using grant money. Marlayna Duley said that the State Water Resources Control Board is mandating that the County complies with these new rules. The County is trying to comply with as few extra burdens as possible. The public is welcome to submit ideas.
  • The State of California has billions of dollars available for water infrastructure. The new rules put a tremendous burden on the county and farmers. Will the state provide funding for any of this? 
  • If after all paperwork is submitted for a new well and it is not approved after all the testing process, it will need to be destroyed. Does the owner need to apply for a “destruction permit?”
  • Ballpark figure for new hydrogeology and other reports required? $30,000 to $60,000. Could be as high as $250,000.
  • Will it help fast-track the permitting process if well owners use an independent consultant who can get the permit approved quickly?
  • Is there a difference between a permit to pump river “underflow” rather than groundwater?
  • This is opening Pandora’s box.
  • The devil is in the details.

The next workshop will be held in January 2023. Stay tuned.

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  1. Looks like another jobs-creation program for the paperwork industry.
    Will there be enough water to fill Grover Norquist’s bath tub?

  2. Thanks for this article, very informative.
    Nothing has ever been done to deal with the water problem in Coalinga and the Central Valley, so of course they are now facing this catastrophe, a sinking water table in the Central Valley groundwater that was once so abundant that people thought it could never run out. Everyone blames the almonds, when in fact it is the cattle.
    Regarding this permitting process, will special favors (statewide) be going to the beef industry over orchards and farms like they are doing in the Central Valley? It seems very likely that, if that happens, here in Mendocino County we will see possible catastrophic depletion instead of regulation.

    • Sarah is knowledgeable about ag….she reads a few articles and bam! Hey… before all the orchards and row crops there were cattle….pasture dry land…the valley started to sink with the plantings….population growth…hey I ain’t bashing them farmers….we all need each other….if your gonna use our resources…well then…

      • Actually, Cowboy, this information has been around for decades. Have you driven down 5, past Coalinga, past the feedlots? It has been like that for many years, long before almonds and pistachios.
        So you are right about that, but that only means that the damage to the aquifer began before crops, and continued. Feedlots and slaughterhouses use a lot of water. Whereas almonds? Dry as a bone when they are shipped out to be processed elsewhere. The water the trees consume is taken up and then goes back into the atmosphere or back into the aquifer. What goes into the air from cattle? Flatulence. Spell that CO2.
        You call them “our resources”: are you saying that because cattle “came first”, before crops? Is that true? Have you actually researched it? And before that, it was Native American land, which grew acorns and seeds as well as wild animals. Very water conservative! So whose water?

    • The ratio of water used is 660 gallons per hamburger or 405 gallons per pound of almonds.
      Also private homes use about 4 percent of the available fresh water where as the rest is used by industry and ag.
      Our own county uses so much water to grow wine grapes and cannabis. When will we grow nourishing food for our local people? When will that be profitable?
      They want us to turn on each other. It’s working.

      And yes we should probably eat just a little less meat, not saying ‘beyond meat’ just saying in general. Everyone arguing over what used to be raised along the highways needs to read Greg Sarris’s book ‘Weaving the Dream’. Cattle, dry farmed or not, fucked the land up long ago.

      And now for my personal opinion: we should be ‘growing’ vast orchards of acorn, buckeyes, chia, ducks and deer, manzanita and elderberry etc. Call me crazy.

      • Most people, myself included, do not know what to do with those foods, like acorns and manzanita berries, but there is lots of potential there. We have elderberry trees on our property but this year they didn’t produce. We don’t water them and they always were healthy before. Now they look pretty ragged. Hope they survive. Their roots must go down to a nice water table, but it may be shrinking. The oaks are fine. Huckleberries at the coast are not producing much, though the plants are still healthy. Used to get bumper crops. What is going on?
        As for the grapes, the water they take up into the grape goes to the vintner and then out to points beyond, whereas cannabis leaves are very dry when processed. Makes me think the grapes are taking much more water out than the cannabis. However, much of the irrigation water, even on grapes, goes back into the water table. Not so much with cattle. It (water) goes into their flesh, which is then shipped, on the hoof, to points beyond. Wherever it goes, it has to be processed , which involves even more water (much more). And we haven’t even started talking about climate change, pollution, or adverse health effects on those who eat it. Sorry, it just doesn’t sound logical to me. I know lots of people think they need it, but there are plenty of other alternatives than impossible burger or some other expensive (and probably unhealthy) product.
        Am I flogging a dead horse? Probably. Nobody wants to hear this.
        Change is difficult, but what other choice do we have?

      • Most people don’t know what to do with a wheat berry to make it edible either. Or even how to make bread. Not the point. Point is we need to cultivate the foods that grow easy here. Or in any locality. And maybe grow some food in between the wine and cannabis.

    • Sarah, most of the I 5 corridor used to be cattle and volunteer hay….mind you this was before ww2 and after to about the late 50’s…the feedlot is a short stretch compared to the whole valley…when a cow flatulence yes it goes in air then the grass it grazes stores the carbon in the ground….in my pastures i have plenty of oaks that the Indians gathered acorns….those trees are still there because of no row crops…

      • Dry land pastures that’s what it all used to be…then the crops and houses…it’s called progress…and iam against it…

      • Resources is a broad term…it takes all of ag for life to live…food and fiber…like I said before iam not knocking orchards or row crops…we need them…you may not eat meat…but the animal by-products you use everyday

      • The orchards now a days need irrigation water….the water table is low because of pumping…the homestead fruit trees slowly died after the land was sold off and switched over to conventional ag….the wells were drilled and the pumping began…my 97 year old grandfather likes to tell the story’s of Napa valley to Maxwell…of the tall rye grass up to the horses belly…and the deer tasted great….confession of a red meat survivor;)

      • The Coalinga feedlot may not cover as much land as crops, but it makes up for it in the number of animals that end up there, to be fattened (and watered) and slaughtered. The trees stay where they are but the animals are constantly cycling through 24/7.
        I have no argument with you, just wanted to state that cattle are causing the water shortage in the Central Valley, not almonds, in my view. News coverage seems to favor the idea that it is almonds, which makes me suspicious that the industry behind the processing plant is exercising some political control over decision making regarding water shortage, which is not helping the people in the Central Valley who are out of water, nor is it in keeping with goals regarding global warming.

  3. Climate change with decreased rainfall has come home to roost. Too many straws in the cup and the cup isn’t getting refilled. It’s going to take a lot of cooperation from all to get through this. The day is approaching when private wells will have meters installed and people are charged for what they pump out of the ground.

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Monica Huettl
Monica Huettl
Mendocino County Resident, Annoying Horse Girl.

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