Not Well Done

The Monterey County Water Resources Agency tracks pumping from the Salinas Valley Basin and annually publishes maps of well activity like the one above. 

Whenever a farmer or a water utility wants to drill a well, replace an existing one or destroy an old one, they apply for a permit with their county regulator. This process has remained more or less the same for decades, with tens of thousands of wells drilled to pump water from the aquifers for irrigating crops and supplying household taps.

In August, a lawsuit about the permitting process for wells in Stanislaus County reached the Supreme Court of California. The court looked at Stanislaus County’s rules and said, in essence, you have been doing it wrong. Not only that – the court’s ruling meant that virtually every county in the state has been permitting wells in violation of California law.

Counties, including Monterey, were treating well permits as if they were exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. But the court said wells should not be exempt, because at least some wells certainly do have environmental impacts. A process of environmental review under CEQA would now be required in some cases, despite the delay and added cost. But in which cases?

It would take time to decide and to draft new rules for wells. So, after the court ruling, Monterey County froze the processing of all well permit requests for 90 days. County staff presented a draft of new rules at the meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8. Their draft seemed to satisfy no one.

Nancy Isakson, president of the farmer group Salinas Valley Water Coalition, says the proposed rules “lack clarity” and need to be rewritten. John Farrow, a lawyer for the conservation nonprofit LandWatch, wrote a 35-page legal brief outlining shortcomings of the proposal. “The county has more work to do,” he says.

Issues to be sorted out include wells in areas facing seawater intrusion, drilling into the deep aquifer, and wells in floodplains.

Over the next few weeks, county staff will take another crack at the well permit ordinance. A new version is expected in early 2021.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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