Stanislaus Farmers Sued over Environmental Concerns about Groundwater Wells

The Modesto Bee, February 7, 2014
By J.N. Sbranti

Environmental advocates filed a lawsuit Thursday against more than a dozen Stanislaus County farmers seeking to shut off the water to about 60 recently approved wells for agricultural irrigation.

The legal action seeks an environmental review of the impact those groundwater wells will have on Stanislaus’ aquifers. Attorneys contend county officials violated state law by authorizing the drilling of those wells without first determining whether they might harm the environment by depleting the water basin.

The same environmental groups, Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources and the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance, filed a similar legal action last week. That lawsuit was against Stanislaus County’s Department of Environmental Resources, and it aims to get the agency to require environmental reviews before issuing any future well-drilling permits.

The county issued about 300 permits for new wells last year, most of which were for large agricultural irrigation pumps to water new orchards in eastern Stanislaus. Concerns about how all those big new wells may impact the county’s groundwater supply – especially during drought years like this one – have been raised.

Rather than suing every farmer who got a well drilling permit in 2013, the plaintiffs focused their lawsuit on owners of larger ranches that took out multiple permits this fall for the largest size wells.

Among those named in the lawsuit are: Louis Brichetto, John Brichetto, Joe Areias, Naraghi Farms, Woolfe Farms, AA Ranches, A&A Ranches, A&T Ranches, Alldrin Brothers, Millcreek Farming, Stueve Brothers, Beyer Ranch Family, S and R Rodoni Farms and W.J. Merrill Co.

San Francisco attorney Thomas Lippe and Jerry Cadagan, a retired attorney and environmental activist from Sonora, began warning those farmers and county officials a month ago that lawsuits would be filed if they continued to drill wells without complying with California Environmental Quality Act requirements.

The lawyers initially asked farmers to voluntarily void their permits and agree to do environmental reviews. When that didn’t happen, they sued.

“As of today, we still have not heard from the county or any others,” Cadagan said Thursday. He founded the Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources group specifically to be the plaintiff in these water well lawsuits.

The environmental attorneys may be getting ready to broaden the lawsuit’s scope beyond Stanislaus. On Thursday they sent copies of the lawsuit to California Attorney General Kamala Harris to let her office know what they are doing.

Stanislaus County counsel Jack Doering previously called the plaintiffs’ demands “outrageous,” and he defended the county’s actions in issuing the well drilling permits. Doering said there’s no legal basis for requiring environmental reviews for those permits.

Doering said the permit process is required only to make sure wells are constructed correctly, and they have nothing to do with regulating how much water is pumped out of the aquifer.

The Modesto Bee was unable to reach any of the farmers named in the lawsuit.

Wendell Naraghi of Naraghi Farms, however, previously explained how the wells his family received permits for already have been drilled and now are pumping water to irrigate newly planted almond trees near Oakdale and Denair.

Naraghi noted how developing those orchards took several years of planning. He said his family – which has been farming in Stanislaus for 60 years – followed all the county’s rules before spending about $140,000 each to install those new wells.

Millcreek Farming and Stueve Brothers also have drilled their wells and are planting about 258,000 almond and walnut trees, according to what their project manager Joe Blum told The Bee in December. Blum said the Stueve family has been farming in Stanislaus for more than 50 years.

Blum said the Stueve land outside Oakdale had been used mostly as pasture for grass-fed Angus beef, but the family is switching to nut orchards. Since the land is not served by one of the county’s irrigation districts, Blum said, wells were drilled that could pump 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of groundwater per minute.

 Filed Complaint (pdf)