C.J. Brady: If Centennial Dam damages local wells, who’s got our backs?
October 12, 2018
Two years ago, at one of our county supervisor's town hall meetings, I first heard the question: "Will Centennial Dam damage local wells?" At that time, the supervisor didn't know the answer, but a couple of voices piped up from the back of the room, "No! Centennial Dam will make your wells better!"
Since those voices belonged to a local realtor and an individual who planned to sell property to NID, I figured I needed more information.
A little research revealed that our foothills groundwater lies beneath fractured rock and recharges through the cracks in the rock. Fracture patterns send the water in particular directions. Disturbing the rock can change the direction of the groundwater recharge flow.
What does that mean for my well? I've been a Nevada County well owner in Alta Sierra for nearly 30 years, and so far, the fractured rock patterns that recharge the groundwater my well uses have been working just fine. What happens when a major earth-moving project (building a dam and redirecting local roads for a 6-mile, 110,000-acre-foot reservoir) changes the groundwater recharge pattern?
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Looking for answers (and reassurance), I attended more informational meetings. At one event, when the well question came up, NID's general manager stated that the project would not harm local wells but then added that NID would be happy to help Alta Sierra well owners connect to the NID water delivery system — if 60 percent of the well-owners in our area would agree to pay $32,000 per household. Not reassuring … and not really in our budget.
Eventually, I found an opportunity to speak with a scientist at U.C. Davis's Center for Watershed Sciences. Will Centennial Dam damage my well? Her answer was: "Maybe." It turns out that constructing a massive new dam over fractured rock in the foothills could redirect groundwater away from wells, but without an extensive study of fractured rock patterns in our area, the exact impact of the Centennial Dam project on local wells is unknown.
In other words, it's a gamble. NID can roll the dice, bet our wells and wait and see.
As the suspense builds, some of the 50,000-plus well owners in Nevada County have another question for NID: Considering the potential for damage to local homeowners' water systems, is a new dam on top of our fractured rock aquifer really the best idea?
At many of the Centennial project information sessions, speakers have presented alternatives to the dam: replacing canals with pipes, removing sediment from existing reservoirs, optimizing and collaborating with existing facilities, banking water in the American River Sub-Basin, improving forest and watershed health. According to the speakers, putting our resources and efforts into those alternatives would yield as much water storage as Centennial Dam, without the risk to local wells.
Given the potential for well damage, and the number of Nevada County residents who depend on wells to supply their water, wouldn't it make sense to put the brakes on this project and seriously explore the alternatives? And if the board votes to proceed, I've got one more question: if Centennial construction does direct groundwater recharge away from our wells, what remedy is available (at no cost to the affected well owners)?
During the town hall meeting where I first heard the well question, the county supervisor stated there is no plan in place to assist homeowners with damaged wells — your well is your responsibility. True. Over the past nearly 30 years, I have cared for my well as part of normal home maintenance. However, I would submit that Centennial Dam induced well failure is not part of normal home maintenance — and it would be nice for well owners who have been conscientiously working, living and paying taxes in Nevada County to know that our elected officials have our backs.
C.J. Brady lives in Grass Valley.