’Sucking air’

Glenn County places moratorium on new permits for drilling water wells

Glenn County Supervisor Leigh McDaniel believes the recently imposed moratorium on new well-drilling permits is long overdue.

Glenn County Supervisor Leigh McDaniel believes the recently imposed moratorium on new well-drilling permits is long overdue.


With an economy heavily dependent on an $800 million agricultural industry, officials in Glenn County recognize the importance of managing the groundwater that brings life to local farmland. But with wells going dry throughout the region in this fourth year of drought, Glenn County Supervisor Leigh McDaniel believes that the time has come to “draw a line in the sand”—even at the risk of that industry.

That’s how McDaniel described his proposal to enact a countywide, six-month moratorium on the issuance of permits to drill new water wells, both ag and domestic, which he brought forth during the panel’s regular meeting on Tuesday (Aug. 18) at the Civic Memorial Building in Willows. The moratorium, originally requested by farmer Sharon Ellis, a member of local group Save Our Water Resources, is intended to cease drilling “until we can hatch up good management practices for issuing well permits,” McDaniel said. He suggested basing those practices in part on drought measures taken by neighboring counties. (On June 30, Colusa County passed a similar six-month moratorium on drilling.)

“We are probably the only county in this [area] that doesn’t have additional requirements on wells and groundwater,” McDaniel lamented. “Whereas I could say we were ahead of the game five or six years ago, we’re a little behind now.”

McDaniel’s three fellow supervisors (the District 3 seat has been vacant since Supervisor Steve Soeth resigned in July) also expressed concern with Glenn County’s groundwater levels and agreed that curtailing agricultural drilling is necessary to reduce the strain on the Tuscan Aquifer.

In Supervisor John Viegas’ district, for example, 24 domestic wells have recently gone dry, and in a personal aside, Viegas said he lowered his home well by 40 feet because it was “sucking air.” In the broader context, data collected by monitoring wells show that groundwater levels steadily decreased in most parts of the county between 2004 and 2014, McDaniel said.

However, some well owners aren’t as bad off as others. Farmer Seth Fiack, who spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, said that groundwater levels on his property along the Sacramento River have remained steady during the drought. As such, he argued against an across-the-board moratorium.

“I’m dealing with orchards that have too much water,” Fiack said. “There are areas of this county that have a groundwater problem, and there are areas that do not. To arbitrarily put a moratorium across the whole county is wrong.”

Several speakers shared similar concerns—that the proposed moratorium “paints too broad a brush,” as local farmer Wally Cramer put it, and that it’s unfair to ban drilling in areas where there’s plenty of groundwater.

Meanwhile, supporters of the measure, such as Ellis of Save Our Water Resources, urged the supervisors to act quickly.

“There doesn’t seem to be enough urgency about where our groundwater is,” she said. Ellis added that McDaniel’s previous attempt to pass a moratorium on well-drilling in 2014 “would have helped slow things down, make us farmers think about putting in future orchards, to start being more sustainable and to think about our practices.”

Supervisor Dwight Foltz agreed with the sentiment that “one size doesn’t fit all,” and proposed an amendment that would apply the moratorium to only agricultural wells. However, Foltz’s motion failed to draw a second, leaving the supervisors to vote on the moratorium as initially proposed by McDaniel.

The proposal passed unanimously, thereby immediately enacting the six-month moratorium on drilling new wells in Glenn County. Well owners who already have permits but haven’t yet drilled their wells are still allowed to do so.

McDaniel emphasized that the moratorium is temporary, putting new drilling on hold while county staff works toward drafting comprehensive land- and water-use regulations based on data collected by monitoring wells throughout the county.

“I’m not promoting an idea that would prohibit the people in Glenn County from getting water,” he said. “What I am suggesting is that we don’t punch any more holes in the ground and put any more pressure on our aquifer until we better understand things.”