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Sonoma County well owners under strain as drought hits underground supplies

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

Like most of Sonoma County’s rural residents, my family knows exactly where our life-sustaining water comes from: deep in the ground below our feet.

We have an 80-foot well drilled decades ago on the edge of our acreage, drawing about three gallons of water a minute from the subterranean aquifer. A submersible pump fills a dark green 2,500-gallon storage tank connected to a booster pump that sends pressurized water uphill to our indoor and outdoor faucets.

Our water is clear, sweet-tasting soil-filtered rainfall that collects in cracks and gaps in fractured rocks and other underground deposits. By good fortune, our aquifer is free of substances that force some well owners to filter impurities from their water.

We pay no water bills, but must, over the years, occasionally repair or replace a pump or electrical parts.

And we are by no means unique. There are an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 well owners in Sonoma County, most of them residing beyond the reach of city and special district water systems fed largely by Sonoma Water, the county agency that serves more than 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents.

There are about 12,000 wells in the Santa Rosa Plain operated by five cities — Santa Rosa, Windsor, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sebastopol — the water agency, homes, ranches and businesses. Public wells account for 15% of use; private wells 85%.

Private well owners are mostly untouched by the drought-prompted water conservation mandates facing city and suburban residents and the denial of surface water to some Russian River water rights holders.

Tables somewhat turned for well owners

But as the region’s two major reservoirs — Lake Sonoma northwest of Healdsburg and Lake Mendocino near Ukiah — recede in the wake of two rain-poor winters, the tables are somewhat turned.

Homes and businesses connected to the regional system are essentially guaranteed water when they turn their taps, but private well owners can only hope to get by until rain once again hits the ground — an uncomfortable situation in years like this.

As the dwindling reservoirs display rings of bare earth for all to see, well water levels are invisibly falling and threatening to go dry in some areas.

Well owners like me are making strategic choices about domestic and outdoor water use, hoping to avoid the expensive alternatives of running out: buying truckloads of water or digging deeper new wells.

“It’s like having your only bank account and you don’t know how much is in it, when it will run out or how much you have to put back into it,” said Martha, a Sebastopol-area resident with 106-foot well, said in response to a Press Democrat query of well owners. She declined to give her last name.

Linda Hoffman, a Rincon Valley resident, hopes to make it through the drought with a 70-year-old well that’s about 40 feet deep — extremely shallow by modern standards — that has run dry in past summers but always come back.

Neighbors digging new wells

“Most of our neighbors have already had to dig new wells,” she said. “We will cut back completely on irrigation. We time our usage to only have one thing going at a time. We basically try to baby it along as best we can.”

“I already bail the bathtub and spot water select plants by bucket,” said Theresa Melia of Graton, a west county hamlet in which everyone has a well.

“We flush only for poop,” she said, reminiscent of the 1970s Sonoma County drought mantra “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

For years, my family faced similar summertime restraints, when watering the garden drained our 85-gallon pressure tank. Our well refilled the tank in fairly short order, but it took installation of the storage tank, which holds several days worth of water, to eliminate the inconvenience.

We also depend on a 9,000-watt generator to start and run the booster pump during power outages, whereas urban residents get water even when they are in the dark.

Groundwater levels this spring were generally 5 to 15 feet lower than a year ago at monitored wells throughout the county’s groundwater basins, said Jay Jasperse, Sonoma Water chief engineer and director of groundwater management.

“We expect to see groundwater levels continue to drop through the summer,” he said, noting the levels typically decline during dry years and recover in normal rainfall years.

But the falling water levels “are a reminder of the challenges we face as the climate becomes drier and hotter,” Jasperse said.

Gary Mickelson, a partner in Jerry and Don’s Yager Pump & Well Service, said his company is getting three to five calls a week from people worried about their well water supply, in need of a storage tank or well driller and some are already out of water.

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

Those calls usually do not occur until July or August, but this year emerged in May, said Mickelson, a 25-year veteran in the well industry.

Chronically water-poor areas include, he said, Joy Road west of Occidental; Eastman Lane, Spring Hill Road, Chileno Valley Road, San Antonio Road and I Street in the Petaluma area; Bodega and the Valley Ford area and areas along Highway 1 from Marshall to Jenner.

Rock layers in the soil are the common problem in these areas, where drilling deeper will go into impermeable rock, Mickelson said.

Local water haulers ‘maxed out’

Jim Mickelson, his brother and business partner, said it is difficult to get water delivered because local water haulers are “maxed out.”

“It is bad and if we don’t get rain this winter it will get worse,” he said.

Sonoma County Pump & Well is getting two to three calls a week from people with water concerns, mostly in the west county area from Sebastopol to Occidental, said Erik Lowe, who runs the company with his parents, Fritz and Bonnie Lowe.

In the past two months, he estimated they have heard from about three dozen people who reported declining well water levels or loss of water.

A Sebastopol-area resident with a 50-foot well saw the water level drop from 20 feet to 43 feet, at which it could no longer pump water.

Output at another Sebastopol-area well dropped from 2 gallons per minute to a half gallon, and another well owner has already paid for three truckloads of water, said Lowe, president of the California Groundwater Association’s Sonoma/Napa branch.

Most wells around Occidental are less than 100 feet deep and vulnerable to becoming unproductive in an area where water-bearing geological formations are shallow, he said.

In areas where groundwater lies deeper, some residents now have to drill new wells 200 to 300 feet deep to get water, Lowe said.

Scant rainfall hits home

Santa Rosa’s rainfall since Oct. 1 totals nearly 13 inches, a little more than one-third of the average for the period, but rural well owners are faulting more than the weather for their predicament.

Hunter Ellis, a Sebastopol-area resident, said he wasn’t worried about water loss from his 500-foot well but said “PG&E’s planned and unplanned power shutoffs cripple our water supply” without a generator.

Another Sebastopol area resident faulted a neighbor for spraying her lawn with an irrigation “water canon” that consumes an estimated 50 gallons a minute to keep a “vanity lawn patch” green.

Another Sebastopol-area resident faulted a neighbor for spraying her lawn with an irrigation “water canon” that consumes an estimated 50 gallons a minute to keep a “vanity lawn patch” green.

“A light needs to be shined on such practice and the consequence to neighboring wells and groundwater basin depletion,” the resident said.

A Petaluma-area resident attributed a declining well water level to an alleged overdraft of his aquifer by Rohnert Park and vineyard development.

But back to getting by in the drought and a cheap, water saving tip for well owners.

Toilets account for nearly 30% of the average home’s indoor water consumption, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

We keep an orange plastic 5-gallon bucket in the shower to catch water while it is warming up and pour it out as needed. Saves a flush each time.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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