Merced County saw a spike in the number of requests for well permits in the two months before new regulations went into effect in April, but the number of wells being drilled is not necessarily slowing down anytime soon.
The new groundwater ordinance added rules to drilling new wells and moving water out of the county. Between mid-April, when it became law, and June, there have been 80 requests for permits filed, according to the county’s Environmental Health Division.
The ordinance placed stricter constraints around who would be given a permit for a new well. But in the two months before the groundwater ordinance took hold, the county saw 512 requests for permits.
“Anybody and everybody that thought that they may need a well ran down and got a well permit,” said Jerry Shannon, owner of Shannon Pump Co. in Merced.
His company does not drill wells, but sells and installs the equipment that goes into a well.
Well permits in Merced County have expiration dates. Those who pull permits have six months to start drilling and a year to complete the well.
Shannon said he foresees a slowdown in irrigation drilling when the permits run their course.
“Once the permits run out, (the ordinance) is pretty much going to put a stop to drilling of big irrigation wells,” he said.
Vicki Jones, the supervising environmental health specialist with Merced County, confirmed that the 512 permit requests was an abnormally high amount in any two-month period, but said she could not confirm the cause for the increase.
County officials said priority is given to water users whose domestic wells go dry, because it could become a health issue. But, many well drillers have long waiting lists of people who need a new well.
Jon Watry, who lives outside Atwater, said he started calling drillers about a year ago because his mother’s well was becoming unreliable. For at least six months, his mother has had her drinking water delivered and she’s moved on to using a laundromat to clean her clothes.
After being told by several drillers that they had stopped doing domestic wells, he finally lined up a driller.
“He’s the only one who’s come out so far,” Watry said while standing in his mother’s backyard on Thursday.
The 85-foot well was working intermittently, he said, and some drillers told him he’d have to wait for it to be bone dry. Lucky for him, he said, the neighbor’s well dried up, so the driller said he would dig a new well for the Watrys while he was in the neighborhood.
Watry said his mother expected to spend about $20,000 on the roughly 400-foot well. He said he’s heard horror stories from others about unsavory drillers looking to gouge people in need.
Jim Nemitz, a supervisor with Calwater Drilling Co. of Turlock, said he gets calls daily from people looking to drill a well. On average, those people are going to wait 18 months for a new well, he said.
Others may get moved up on the list because they are elderly or have an urgent need, he noted. The company has four rigs running nearly every day.
He and the company’s other employees are working 12-hour days to try to meet the demand for wells. There’s barely time for lunch. “I eat in the truck,” he said.
The company primarily drills domestic and irrigation wells in Merced and Stanislaus counties, and he said he doesn’t see any signs that drilling will slow down.
“I don’t think it’s going to get much better,” he said. “I think it’s going to get uglier.”
AT A GLANCE
Well permits requested in the two months before the new groundwater ordinance
Well permits requested in the two months after the new groundwater ordinance
Source: Merced County Environmental Health Division