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Local News

Santa Barbara County Supervisors Support Discretionary Water Well Permits for Some Applicants

Applications for water wells in Santa Barbara County have been approved as long as people met the technical requirements, but the Board of Supervisors this week signaled support for changing to a discretionary process for non-agricultural wells that are on parcels already served by a water agency.  

The supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to pursue making permits discretionary for non-agricultural well applicants in unincorporated areas who are already served by a water agency, and requiring flow meters to monitor how much is pumped from those wells.

Supervisors Joan Hartmann, Janet Wolf and Das Williams voted in favor while Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino were opposed.

While the county has geographical information about where private water wells are, they’re paper records, and officials don’t know how much water is being pumped out.

A chart on the county website shows 398 active water wells, for irrigation, domestic, or unspecified uses.   

Well drilling has increased with the ongoing drought, with a peak in well permits in 2014, when more than 250 were issued, said Environmental Health Services Director Larry Fay.

Fewer than 100 permits were issued each year between 2009 and 2013, according to the county.

The numbers are going down again, and Fay noted that many of the permits could be to replace failing wells or drill deeper to increase capacity because of the drought; they aren’t all for new wells.

The counyt's permit system is not discretionary, with a few exceptions, so if applicants meet the construction and siting requirements, they get a permit.

Water well permit applications peaked in 2014 and have since dropped off, according to Santa Barbara County. Click to view larger
Water well permit applications peaked in 2014 and have since dropped off, according to Santa Barbara County.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

“It’s not something we have a choice in saying no on,” Fay told the supervisors.

Exceptions are for wells in the coastal zone, which require a discretionary coastal development permit; applicants who plan to export groundwater; and wells that are drilled to serve a water agency or small community, since those are required to get a conditional-use permit.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the supervisors supported making permits discretionary, and requiring flow meters, for applicants on parcels already served by a municipal or other water agency.

Permitting wells on parcels that already receive municipal water service was one of the policies the California Coastal Commission criticized in a “scathing letter” last year, Fay said.

The county had already changed its procedure for permits within the coastal zone, since the state requires a coastal development permit, he added.

Many speakers opposed the change to discretionary permits and requiring flow meters on new wells.

The county’s Agricultural Advisory Committee asked the supervisors not to change county code, especially with the creation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to manage specific basins.

“Well permits do not necessarily correlate to increased water usage: it is possible that applicants are seeking to create security through redundancy, compensate for aging well casings, or reduce pumping demand on a single well,” committee chair Paul van Leer wrote.

His sentiments were echoed in letters by the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau and Grower Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, among others.

The supervisors also discussed last October’s hydrogen sulfide release from a water well drilling operation, which caused many complaints and two days of investigation before officials found the source: a 3,000-foot agricultural well in the Ellwood Canyon area.

A report analyzing the response acknowledged breakdowns in communication between local agencies and delays in notifying the public.

The driller hit an aquifer and a “tremendous release” of hydrogen sulfide gas, Fay said. The first report of the smell came from a resident about 2 miles away from the drill site, he said.

The county declared the well a nuisance and “ultimately compelled them to abandon that well,” which the driller did, Fay said.

Fay said the driller had drilled deeper than the well application indicated, but that’s not unusual. People don’t know exactly where water’s going to be until they drill, he said.

A 3,000-foot well is unusual though, he noted.

The county hadn’t experienced a hydrogen sulfide release like that one before, Fay said, adding that he hoped any competent driller would take steps to mitigate that risk beforehand.

Adam, who has experience with wells in the Santa Maria Valley in his farming business, said it would take a “multi-billionaire” to drill a well that deep because of the cost.

The county has a 1,700-foot well application now that’s estimated to cost $500,000, Fay said.

Some of the supervisors were interested in requiring drillers to notify the county when they drilled deeper than the permit application said, while Adam said a well completion report already accomplishes that.

County staff will bring back the proposed policy changes for a final decision by the Board of Supervisors.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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