County policies lead to failing wells


By on Wed, August 5, 2009

Paul Perkovic is MWSD Board President but his letter expresses his individual opinion, not official Board or District policy. He’s running for re-election this year. Coastsider welcomes letters from all candidates for public office on the Coastside.

The risks resulting from San Mateo County allowing private wells without adequate groundwater studies are highlighted in the article “Midcoast water policies blamed for failing well” in last week’s Half Moon Bay Review and Pescadero Pebble.

Montara Water and Sanitary District, not the County, initiated Local Coastal Program changes to give existing homes priority for new public water connections when their wells fail. Coastal Commission action on that LCP amendment has been postponed again. Meanwhile, rather than moving other existing homes with wells to public water supplies before their wells fail, the County wants to reserve priority water for even more “affordable housing” – beyond the hundreds of units already proposed – before allowing new connections.

Contrary to the claim in the HMB Review article, MWSD has never “bailed out a private household well.” MWSD has operated the Montara / Moss Beach water system only since August 2003, during which time the District has developed a major new source of low-cost, high-quality drinking water, among many other improvements. The Review’s reporter asked me about an alleged case from the early 1990s, but that would have been considered by the California Public Utilities Commission regarding the prior corporate owner of the Montara water system, Citizens Utilities Company of California. I explained that I did not know the details of any exceptions to the moratorium considered by the CPUC.

Public water wells, as opposed to wells for single-family homes, must go through extensive environmental studies and monitoring to ensure they do not have adverse impacts. I support development of a groundwater management plan for the Midcoast that would determine safe yields from each of our many Coastal aquifers as a pre-requisite for permitting further private wells. As indicated in the recent Kleinfelder report to the Board of Supervisors, the cumulative effects of the County’s current policy could leave many homeowners with private wells in the same situation as the family in your article, if aquifers are overdrawn during an extended drought. The County has not studied the interactions of many wells in close proximity.

MWSD is working to bring existing well-based homeowners onto the public water system as soon as possible. Everyone in our community should enjoy adequate supplies of safe, reliable, high-quality water sufficient to meet their needs.

I think the County acted prudently in not putting a moratorium on well drilling on the Coast based on a study that had inconclusive results.  To ban well drilling would have placed an undue financial burden on all vacant land owners on the coast and specifically in Moss Beach and in Montara where there is no alternative.

I’ve been around since the beginning of well drilling going back to the mid 80’s and out of the 1100 current wells,  only a handful have had problems.  Many underproducing wells in the CCWD area have been able to convert to municipal water.  The house mentioned in the Review has had a long time production problem.  I remember hearing of that in the 90’s when it was up for sale.  Its also interesting how well production can vary over a short distance.  I sold a lot on Etheldore and Marine and it got over 6gpm. I also built a home 20 years ago on Carlos and Sierra and its still working fine.

Until more studies are done with more conclusive results,  the County should maintain the status quo.  Also with land sales and well permit applications being so low,  there’s really no reason to over-react by imposing a moratorium since there is no viable alternative, especially for the property owners in Moss Beach and Montara.

If you read the county’s groundwater study, it’s clear that there is a risk of running out of water or creating salt water intrusion in some parts of the Midcoast’s water supply. We don’t know the size of the risk because the county has ignored its obligation to collect data on the wells in production.

Under the circumstances, it’s irresponsible to allow more wells until their effect on existing wells, including our community water supply, is better understood.

Just because we got away with it so far is no reason to continue.

Here’s a link to my story on the groundwater study, as well as the study itself. It’s disturbing.

I found the report inconclusive so there is no reason to punish all the landowners with a moratorium.  Also over the past few years only 25 or so well permits were taken out.  So this is much to do about nothing.

In the CCWD area at least landowners have another option with so many unused water connections.  That’s not the case in Moss Beach and Montara.

If there’s more information later that says there’s a real problem,  the subject will be revisited.  Unfortunately with budgets being stretched thin,  its unlikely there will be surplus funds to do more analysis now.

I also think the County does require meters on wells so they should have a good handle on people’s consumption over time.

Steven, if the county is monitoring wells, the report would have had more information, don’t you think?

I’d be interested in your view on the risk to all the homes presently on wells. How would you protect them from possible salt water intrusion?  Certainly it’s not only undeveloped properties that are worth safeguarding, is it?

If the County were monitoring quantity and quality of water taken from single family wells it would not need to ask for volunteers to help get data for the well study: 090730/

Steve,  You seem to be far more concerned with the rights of builders than the plight of folks who purchase a home and end up with a failing well.  You talk about the fact that after market water connection rights are available at CCWD, but do not mention the cost or the effect of the high costs on homeowners who are forced to purchase them due to their failed wells. 

Why doesn’t the County just require a CCWD connection to build in the unincorporated CCWD district - like Half Moon Bay does?

I’ve seen meters on wells now for more than 10 years on many homes.  What the County does with that info or anything is another matter.  I can see this being a labor intensive process where people would have to go and read and record the gauges and then tabulate the data. 

I don’t have a clue if the County does anything with this.  I just know they made people install the gauges to monitor well production.

As far as wells with salt water intrusion goes,  the only urban area that comes to mind is in the Highland Park area of HMB where people who first built homes there in the early 90’s had to get reverse osmosis systems and extra storage tanks to filter out the salt.

Over my 20 years of observation and building homes throughout the coast,  I’ve only heard of a very few problem wells.  Some you could tell were problaeatic from the beginning like a few homes with 2 wells on a 5000 sqft lot over 400 feet deep and tied together.  The people on Etheldore is a long known and sad story.  But when you think about that there are over 1100 wells and only a handful have had problems,  that’s really good batting average.

Let’s not forget that wells came about in the urban area when the water companies couldn’t supply water and JL Johnson got the County to make them available back around 1985. 

In other parts of the country people do more for conservation like using cisterns (invented by the Romans) to save rain water for irrigation.  It seems odd to me that we don’t do something with all the winter runoff except dump it in the ocean. Doing this would allow more water connections.  Also its too bad that CCWD made people destroy their wells when hooking up to new connections.  Those wells could have saved a lot of water for landscaping.

Kathryn,  I’m not speaking for the builders but the long time property owners.  Some of my clients have owned property here for decades and have been abused by the system by having their property rezoned.

Spec building has really fallen off here over the past few years because of the long permit approval process and rising fees.  Personally I think when do you the math,  it doesn’t pencil out,  especially if you want to make a profit. Its so much easier and cheaper to buy a home than build one.

As far as the price of CCWD water connections goes,  I wrote in the Review 1 year ago that I saw several hundred water connections becoming available thereby driving down prices.  Just last week at our local realtor meeting,  someone announced 1 person had 50 to sell.  Add that to Keenan and Pacific Ridge and N Wavecrest and there’s more connections than demand.  Prices last year were around $40k, now there around low $30’s and maybe next year in the $20’s. That’s my guess.

At these prices, people who want to build in HMB and El Granada should consider CCWD water over wells.

Homes in the Salinas Valley didn’t have problems with salt in the water until too much water was pulled from the aquifer, so anecdotal evidence here does nothing to avoid the same fate our neighbors to the south are burdened by now.

So I’d still be interested in your view on the risk to all the homes presently on wells. Would you protect them from possible salt water intrusion?  Certainly it’s not only undeveloped properties that are worth safeguarding, is it? 

I don’t see how banning a few new wells skatered all over the place stop salt water intrusion?  I guess the same question could be asked of MWSD since all your water comes from wells.  What are you doing so that your wells don’t get contaminated?

As far as Highland Park goes,  they had salt water there from day one and this was when wells just popped up on the coast.  They are also the only residential area that I know of that has that problem.  I know of a ranch in Tunitas Creek that hit salt water but that’s a different issue.

BTW since you Paul and Kathryn have commented on this topic,  I’d love to get some simple understanding of the eminent domain suit with the feds and the appeal. I’m sure you can understand from a real estate perspective this is fascinating.

The result of too many private wells will be widespread irreversible failures.  The “head in the sand” approach that Steve is pushing, where we keep allowing new wells until there’s a problem, is criminally negligent.  It’s much more important to keep the existing wells from failing than it is to ensure that vacant property owners can develop their properties on a well.

Regarding salt water intrusion, I’ll steal an analogy from Paul: if we have a bunch of people in a lifeboat, and everything appears to be fine, then we add one more and the boat sinks, that ruins it for everyone and you can’t fix the problem by tossing the last person overboard—the boat has sunk.

Even if the problem is simply an inadequate supply rather than saltwater intrusion, you can’t just toss overboard the last person to connect, because we won’t discover the problem until one of the cyclical drought years at which time there may be dozens or even a hundred more wells than the aquifer can reliably support in dry years.

Steve’s often-repeated comments claiming that the small number of recent land sales means that there’s no great demand is disingenuous, since many people who have owned property for years, decades, or a century often develop the property themselves, so no sale is required for development to occur.

Steve’s other comment regarding how few well permits are being issued is also disingenuous, since I’ve heard that there are many existing unused wells on vacant parcels, which could be put into service at any time.  What would be useful would be to correlate well permits since 1984 with building permits since 1984 to see how many unused wells there are.

The only prudent approach is to suspend all new well usage until there is solid data indicating that it’s safe to continue.

I think that Steve should personally offer to insure all houses on wells against failures caused by having too many wells.

Leonard I think we half agree although your proposal punishes people with no proof that there is a problem.

With water connection prices dropping in the HMB and El Granada area most people building will opt for city water over wells.  So now we are talking about building in Moss Beach and Montara.  Again there’s not a lot going on to have a problem.

But if MWSD and possibly Granada Sanitary District think this is situation is so bad,  why don’t they offer vacant land owners money to not develop their land for a few years.  This way everybody wins as opposed to your suggestion which posses a huge financial burden on a landowner.  After all the utilities are much richer than us.

The MWSD and the GSD can serve their communities by simply not issuing permits for resources or infrastructure capacity that does not exist. That way the land will not be overdeveloped. It is the county that should take responsibility for any development depending on wells, as the county is the permitting agency.

Anyone purchasing a home on a well in an area with unproven sustainable groundwater resources should understand the risk they are taking. I do not agree with any effort to bring development on wells into a water system if the wells were drilled because a water district did not have capacity in its system to serve the properties. If new capacity allowing more hookups can be developed in a district, it should be paid for entirely by those hooking up. It is not the role of existing ratepayers to subsidize development.

The additional hookups in the CCWD alluded to in above messages are essentially paper hookups. CCWD is already short on water and facing a possible need to conserve even more than it has or even to ration just to serve existing customers. More hookups in that district without additional water to serve them is simply a recipe for greater shortages.

A “reliable” or “sustainable” amount of water is that which is available in the driest of years. It does no good to be splash-happy in wet years if you can’t survive dry years. People who measure or estimate quantities of things in nature usually understand such simple truisms intuitively. The latest groundwater report for the county could not be more “conclusive” because it lacked data; but the cautionary statements about the capacities of the numerous small watersheds are reasoned guesses and a good basis for an assessment of risk until something better comes along. Being the best information we have at the moment, the study should be one basis for prudent regulation of water-demanding development in our area, including in our LCP.

When one is dealing with the material world, it matters not if someone selling real estate sees property as an abstract commodity to be freely bought and sold in an artificially created marketplace. One must proceed on what is known or suffer negative consequences—as we so often have over recent decades on the midcoast due to ignoring local realities.

I am bemused to return to the Coastsider five years after selling my home on Stetson St., to see that virtually nothing has changed on the issue of water in Moss Beach and Montara…absolutely nada. Still no solution for failing wells and digusting filthy water…I routinely hooked up my neighbor out of a moral concern for his need for potable water…Kathryn knows this property. That neighbor now lives in the Florida Keys. Then there were the two ex-firemen who cooked up the complicated idea of drilling wells in Montara and applying to the PUC to swap them for water hookups on Stetson to make a quick buck. Then there is the demented greedy old man and his delinquent sons who are still telling anyone who will listen that he plans a 3 story hotel on his Carlos property…looks like he may still get away with it.

The monkey business and “see no evil” just keeps on rolling along down there….