State courts decided that Stanislaus County has to cease their practice of giving administrative approval for well permits, and the county is now working on policies to decide which well permits will require an environmental review. 

During a rush on well permits during the previous drought in 2014, the county was hit with a lawsuit from Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources, challenging the county’s approval of well applications. 

More than 500 new water well permits were issued by the county that year, many of them for farmers raising orchards in the eastern part of the county. It raised concerns that large industrial-sized wells for irrigation were using too much groundwater supplies. 

In 2015, a second lawsuit was targeted towards a single well permit. The two cases were litigated up to the California Supreme Court, which issued an opinion last year that some well permits should be reviewed for environmental impacts, such as a well close to a septic system or another contamination source. 

An appeals court ruling in March established that wells in an area that has flooded historically should go through an environmental review. Stanislaus County Superior Court on Sept. 1, amended a previous judgment, requiring the county to change its practices and determine the appropriate number of environmental regulations for new wells. The new county policies will affect 73 well applications in the pipeline and future requests for new water wells, which could increase if the current drought continues. 

The county’s department of environmental resources is working with the county counsel and consultants to update the process of obtaining a permit. According to a staff report, the county will come up with criteria for telling if a well permit triggers an environmental study, in compliance with the court rulings. According to Supervisor Terry Withrow, the county needs to develop a way to classify which potential well permits would trigger a review. 

“I’d like us to come up with language that would be considered discretionary. And all the other ones are not discretionary, are still ministerially, and that way the staff can focus on the ones that are considered discretionary,” he said. 

County leaders hope it can be done so a homeowner won’t be required to pay for an environmental study before building a new well. The county also hopes the new approach will not require the monitoring wells and replacements. 

The new approach will aim to protect groundwater quality and comply with the court rulings, without being “unduly burdensome” for applicants, the staff report says.