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Beneath the surface: Above the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, new wells are being dug while residents and agriculturalists worry about the uncertain future 

The ailing Paso Robles Groundwater Basin has become a common talking point at local public meeting halls and across the area’s dinner tables. It’s often spoken of in the same breath as the oft-mentioned drought, and the two subjects are certainly linked, in as much as any issue related to a drying up of liquid resources is connected to the state’s—and nation’s—worsening water crisis.

While some stakeholders above the basin in northern San Luis Obispo County grow thirstier by the day, they’ve also come a long way in the last year.

click to enlarge WHERE THERE’S A WELL :  Approximately 4,000 acres of proposed irrigated vineyards were exempted from the Aug. 27, 2013, passage of an urgency ordinance intended to stem the tide of new and increasing pumping from the ailing Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. San Luis Obispo County has allowed new building and plantings to continue if water use is offset or minimum requirements are met from a list of possible vested rights exemptions, including the - submission of a well permit application before Aug. 27, 2013. Two well permit applications for the vineyard slated for planting (top left) and a new planting across the street (top right) were submitted two weeks before the ordinance passed. Seen (bottom) is another new vineyard, where Pacific Coast Well Drilling Inc. has been drilling 700- to 800-foot wells. That property submitted 10 well permit applications five days before the ordinance passed, and subsequently received offset exemptions. - PHOTOS BY TOM FALCONER
  • PHOTOS BY TOM FALCONER
  • WHERE THERE’S A WELL : Approximately 4,000 acres of proposed irrigated vineyards were exempted from the Aug. 27, 2013, passage of an urgency ordinance intended to stem the tide of new and increasing pumping from the ailing Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. San Luis Obispo County has allowed new building and plantings to continue if water use is offset or minimum requirements are met from a list of possible vested rights exemptions, including the submission of a well permit application before Aug. 27, 2013. Two well permit applications for the vineyard slated for planting (top left) and a new planting across the street (top right) were submitted two weeks before the ordinance passed. Seen (bottom) is another new vineyard, where Pacific Coast Well Drilling Inc. has been drilling 700- to 800-foot wells. That property submitted 10 well permit applications five days before the ordinance passed, and subsequently received offset exemptions.
The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors spent last summer wrestling with—and eventually passing—a controversial urgency ordinance to slow the increasing demand for precious water from the basin. There seemed to be little choice but to take a “time-out,” as reluctantly compliant agriculturalists put it. But since then, more dirt has been tilled, and new steel stakes have been hammered into the ground, followed by foot-tall PVC pipes where green grape vines eventually stretch outward and upward.

Meanwhile, the sight of well-drilling rigs popping up along the hills—an event that’s grown more common in recent years—has persisted. Property owners are still regularly scurrying to get a driller out to drop or replace their wells before they go dry. So while the urgency ordinance was intended to help relieve the growing strain being put on available groundwater, the stream of new wells being drilled has locals scratching their heads.

A mad dash

As the possibility of an ordinance grew near in 2013, local leaders saw a significant spike in well permit applications submitted to the environmental health office. The SLO County supervisors first asked staff to draft options for an urgency ordinance in May of that year. At that point, the number of submissions had already begun to gradually increase, but incoming applications jumped over the summer as pressure mounted for the supervisors to take action. Through a public records request, New Times obtained copies of all the permit applications filed for wells to be drilled over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin in 2013 and 2014. Of the 134 applications obtained by New Times, 24 came in to the office in July and 61 in August 2013, many within a week prior to the ordinance’s initial Aug. 27 passage.

In July of this year, Rich Lichtenfels, an environmental health specialist with the SLO County Environmental Health Department, was a guest at the Creston Advisory Body’s monthly meeting, which has become a venue for residents who have grown concerned about the water crises to invite guests to discuss such topics as the proposed water district, a quiet title lawsuit, management plans, and water banking. There, Lichtenfels fielded questions about wells, water quality, and the general process of procuring a permit for a well.

According to a presentation Lichtenfels gave at the meeting, there were 224 open well permits countywide as of July 2014, including those over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin: 87 of are for domestic wells, and 137 are for irrigation wells. Permit applications for wells in the basin have made up more then half of the activity seen by the environmental health office in the last couple of years. The influx doesn’t necessarily mean that the sky is about to start falling, however, as some permits sit unused, and some are for replacement wells.

“People wanted to reserve their chance to drill a well,” Lichtenfels told New Times. “Not all permits have actually resulted in a well.”

It’s difficult to confirm whether the rate of drilling has increased since the ordinance passed. Drillers were already going full bore beforehand, and the influx of pre-moratorium applications shows that some were for replacements to compensate for the failure of other previously existing wells. Many wells, including both domestic and irrigation, will likely serve a household; some will produce for a small, private vineyard or other type of farm. There are also a few new or existing olive orchards, some alfalfa planted over the basin, and other forms of agriculture.

New Times contacted the three most active well drilling companies in the North County hoping to get a better understanding of the situation directly from the people who are on the ground—but was unable to secure an interview. It’s a busy time for the companies, and well drillers are known for being protective of their clients’ privacy. Details of a well, its size, and how much water it pumps are all proprietary information closely guarded by the well owners, especially agriculturalists.

Out of the 134 applications submitted for wells over the basin in 2013 and 2014, 65 were for domestic wells and 64 for irrigation. Three wells were listed for livestock (to fill troughs), one was a domestic public well in Templeton, and one was listed as both domestic and irrigation and noted as being abandoned.

Irrigation wells are generally deeper than domestic wells, though domestic wells have shown a trend toward dropping farther into the ground. More recent applications varied from a shallow 200 feet to the 500- to 700-foot range, and even as deep as 800 feet.

Generally, irrigation wells remain within a range of about 600 to 900 feet—when they can. A handful of irrigation wells were listed at 1,000 feet or deeper. Only one driller has applied to go deeper than 1,000 feet.

In addition to several wells of less than 1,000 feet—with 700 feet being the shallowest—Tyson Davis of the Templeton-based Pacific Well Drilling Inc. has filed applications to drill two wells to 1,100 feet, one to 1,200 feet, one to 1,300 feet, and one to 1,400 feet, the deepest in the records for 2013-14. Atascadero-based Filipponi and Thomspon Drilling Inc. had the most applications submitted, for both domestic and irrigation, with 1,000 feet being the deepest. Neither company was available for comment.

Of the 25 wells Davis applied for in 2013 and 2014, all were for irrigation. Davis is known to be a specialist in large agricultural wells, which serve a significant role in an area where wells are being drilled deeper to ensure their longevity. The wells aren’t cheap—Lichtenfels said that depth requires a special anti-corrosion metal alloy casing that can cost $450 per foot. With the required materials and highly specialized labor, the big wells can cost upward of $1 million to build.

The depth issue has prompted some concern in area residents. Davis’ name has been mentioned in a concerned tone of voice at public meetings, including the Creston Advisory Body meeting in July, and the mention is usually followed by questions.

An elemental issue

The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin sits atop a few other geological formations. In some places, the basin is about 800 feet deep, surrounded by both shallower and deeper areas. Layered below the basin, also called the Paso Robles Formation, are the Pancho Rico Formation, Santa Margarita Formation, and the Monterey Formation. These formations are known for varying degrees of geothermal activity, some of which pushes up the water that emerges into the hot springs scattered around this area.

The geothermal water is warm—and may be high in such contaminants, as boron, arsenic, sulfur, and chloride. Each of these elements has a particular level of toxicity for people and plants. While arsenic isn’t a basin-wide concern, it has been found in the water in the Pleasant Valley area east of San Miguel, Lichtenfels said, and residents in that area now drink bottled water.

Many of these elements are a greater threat to plants than they are to humans. Boron, which has perhaps garnered the most discussion, isn’t considered dangerous to people but is toxic for plants when it reaches certain concentrations. Rumors have been circulating about particular wells or areas where geothermal waters somehow mixed into the groundwater or bubbled into a well that tapped into the wrong source, and the well had to be abandoned or plants watered by the well died. Details are elusive, however, especially because people aren’t quick to admit that their groundwater is tainted; that information can severely impact property values.

After the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake created a large sinkhole in the Paso Robles City Library parking lot and left a strong smell of sulfur lingering around downtown for months, the United States Geological Survey began a study of geothermal waters under the basin and the concerns they present to water quality there.

A slideshow presentation summarizing the study indicated that most of the local wells that have been contaminated with geothermal water were either adjacent to fault zones or that the water came from fractures in the Paso Robles Formation, which allowed mixing. Some of this may be a natural occurrence, like the hot springs found along the Rinconada Fault in or near the city of Paso Robles. Some of it could even be due to inadvertent discovery of a relic left from a deeply drilled and since abandoned oil well. The USGS presentation also acknowledged that “seasonal draw down of the groundwater results in increased incursion of geothermal water and associated gases.”

The basin has, in the last few decades, seen an average decrease in its groundwater storage, with estimations of the decline ranging from 1,800 to 3,800 acre feet a year, according to a preliminary draft water balance estimation report being prepared for the county. That same report has estimated the basin’s perennial yield at 89,200 acre-feet a year—significantly less than previous estimates.

These finds are all preliminary and part of an ongoing groundwater modeling report that will be presented to the county supervisors sometime in the next month.

Whether a few deep wells can conjure geothermal water is a part of the ongoing conversation. As far as professional discretion goes, Lichtenfels said that the well drillers, especially Davis, take the necessary precautions, like installing seals between the formations.

“[Davis] is very amenable to doing things right,” Lichtenfels said. “So far, looking at the records he’s provided, he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”

Davis declined to comment for this article.

The environmental health specialist said his department will at times send an inspector to observe the drilling process, and while plenty of wells are drilled without an inspector, the deeper ones have become a priority for observation.

Keeping up with a rush on drilling that’s happening over a nearly 800-square-mile swath of land can be quite a challenge, however. A number of the well application permits feature handwritten notes in the “Office Use Only” box, which sits next to another box labeled “Well Seal Witnessed.” The notes reflect the logistical realities of the business: “reschedule,” “no call,” “nobody available,” “driller running late,” “after hours seal,” “could not locate site and no cell reception to contact,” or “nobody could go.” There are, of course, other handwritten notes that indicate the presence of an inspector and that everything went just fine.

Generally speaking, the well drillers give detailed and accurate reports, which at times is the best information anybody can expect.

“It’s hard to evaluate things that happen underground when you can’t see them,” Lichtenfels said. “It’s a challenge, so we depend on them a lot to tell us the correct information, and so some of it’s on the honor system and the fact that if they were to lie or not tell the truth then they’re subject to enforcement action through the state contractor license board. Certainly, if we saw something that wasn’t right, we’d go to our legal counsel and determine if that driller should be doing business in the county of San Luis Obispo.”

Kept in the dark

One can’t simply ask how deep wells are—or, for that matter, how much a well pumps or what kind of water it’s drawing. Those details are proprietary information. Well permit applications can be made public, but well completion reports, also known as the well logs, are also proprietary.

While the applications are quite simple and offer an expected or proposed depth, the well logs offer all of the real dirt: the final depth, the soil types and water quality encountered, and a matrix of other bits of vital information. Some government agencies can view these otherwise confidential documents and use them to monitor groundwater and keep tabs on other issues, but the public can’t.

Researchers with the University of California—which itself makes some agriculturists suspicious—can’t view the information without permission from the well’s owner. The law goes back to the early 1950s, when the state was seeing problems with wastewater intermingling with groundwater supplies. Laws were written to require a minimum distances between wells and possible contamination sources, and drillers were required to submit well completion reports to environmental health agencies. The arrangement was made based on the idea that by keeping the detailed information private, drillers were more likely to submit honest and accurate information in their final reports. That relationship and the sharing of privileged information persists, as demonstrated by the limited information available from the environmental health department.

Some Californians, including some agriculturalists, think the process is outdated. In 2011, State Sen. Fran Pavley introduced a bill aiming to make well logs available to researchers and people studying groundwater, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill after its passage, saying it was too watered down and therefore the initial goal was compromised. The next year, Pavley introduced a bill to make the logs open to the public, but that failed.

Dry talk

As the drought intensifies, proponents of making well logs public have again begun stirring up dust. The matter has become part of the larger political arena that’s taking place amid the worst drought on record in California.

Not only is California the only Western state that doesn’t make well logs public, it’s also the only state in the West, if not the entire country, that doesn’t regulate groundwater pumping. That may change, however.

While the situation over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin can sometimes be framed as a race to the bottom, some locals are instead seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Matt Turrentine of Grapevine Capital Partners has been one of many people looking at the options on the table for managing the precious resource. He recently stood over a large, colorful map that’s been used a lot lately; it shows where well levels have changed, and by how much. The largest drops are marked in a deep red, and the areas where water levels have risen over time are blue.

“We’re actually lucky,” he said. “This map looks really dramatic, but we’re in much better shape than some basins in the Central Valley that are in overdraft by more than a hundred thousand acre-feet annually. The ground is literally sinking underneath their feet.

“We’ve got a solvable problem,” Turrentine said.

While there may be an emerging water crisis, vineyards are also continuing to grow, which prompts the question of whether such agricultural endeavors are a safe investment or not. That’s where both agriculturalists and rural residents are looking toward an array of management options rolling near on the horizon.

State leaders in Sacramento recently passed a landmark legislative package. A trio of bills, all part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—commonly referred to Pavley-Dickinson after its authors Sen. Pavley and Assemblymember Roger Dickinson—will require local management of groundwater basins that are classified as medium- or high-priority. Five basins in San Luis Obispo County, including the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, have such classifications (though two will be exempt because they’ve been adjudicated). The law will require a sustainability plan that sets management on a direction to make groundwater use sustainable, or to limit maximum extraction to not surpass a point that causes a broadly defined set of “undesirable effects.”

The law will give local officials a set of tools to use in groundwater management. It drew fire from many members of the agricultural community because it can lead to groundwater well metering. As it stands now, groundwater use goes largely unreported, and in a broad sense, many areas don’t really know how much water they’re actually using. Potential limitations on the table led to widespread opposition from agriculture-heavy areas like the Central Valley, from where most state senators and assemblymembers—Democrat and Republican—opposed the bill. Many lobbyists are encouraging Gov. Brown to veto the bill, though at a recent gubernatorial debate, he indicated that he’ll probably sign it into law.

While plenty of detractors may point out the bill’s imperfections, its probable forthcoming passage comes as a relief for many. Sue Harvey, a Creston resident who is fully steeped in the basin’s theatrics, will agree.

“We’re headed toward a much drier time, so this is really important for the state in order to survive,” she said.

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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