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Wishing well for water

Dry conditions, a growing population and ever increasing demands for clean water could strain the county’s ground water supplies, said local hydrogeologist Stephen Baker.

County officials say wells are producing water now, and there is no money to pay for monitoring programs that would give future assurances.

“It would take a lot of resources that the county doesn’t have,” said Wesley Nicks, director of the county’s environmental health department.



In Nevada County, the number of wells drilled into fractured rock has increased from 17,000 in 1990 to 33,000 in recent years, posing some risks to an unpredictable and little studied supply of water, Baker said.

Statewide, ground water meets 30 percent of domestic and agriculture demand and as much as 40 percent in drought years, according to the state Department of Water Resources.




There are no alternative back-up plans for county residents dependent on groundwater should their wells suddenly fail, said Baker, who has monitored 11 wells in Nevada and Placer counties for the past five years.

When he addressed the county Board of Supervisors earlier this year, the board showed little interest in his program called Ground Water Watch.

“People have recognized that ground water is kind of a fickle resource. We have to do something about it, and we have to act early,” Baker said.

Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a statewide drought and urged water districts to set strict conservation measures. He also proposed a water bond that would fund the development of more water storage and dams.

The Sierra Nevada’s snow pack typically supplies a steady stream of water during the dry months, but marginal snowpack for two years has meant less than normal reserves for foothill users.

Most of Nevada County’s wells are drilled into fractured rock, an unpredictable water table that can change as the number of wells burrowed into the granite multiplies.

Throughout the state, many wells in fractured rock have gone dry, according to a report by the Department of Water Resources.

More permits for well deepening have been filed through the county in recent years, but most wells continue to supply water, Nicks said.

“I don’t think we’re going to have such an issue with it, because this is the headwaters. This is where it starts,” Nicks said.

Nevada Irrigation District supplies 25,000 homes, businesses and farms with water, but building new canals and pipelines is expensive to outlying areas.

“NID can only go so far. We find ourselves having a logistical problem. We’re relying more and more on ground water,” Baker said.

California water rights allow people to use the water under their property but not lay claim to it, Baker said.

“At some point we’re going to end up going to grips with our neighbors,” Baker said.

Banner Mountain residents Dorothy and Ralph Hitchcock base their lifestyle on the data provided by Baker’s ground water program.

The Hitchcocks’ 200-foot well delivers 3 gallons a minute. They irrigate their plants with a drip system after midnight and never run the dishwasher and washing machine at the same time.

“We know our limitations, and we live with them,” said Ralph Hitchcock.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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