Talk to a well driller long enough, and his devotion to making water gush up for yet another happy homeowner (or farmer or dope grower) becomes infectious. Makes you want to chuck everything and wade into the mud with a geology handbook to become a driller's apprentice.
"I still get a tickle in my stomach whenever we hit water," says Stuart Dickey, a well driller's kid who runs Rich Well Drilling and Pump Service, Inc., with his brother, Stanley Dickey. "You start hitting water, and there's always a high five."
And in a drought? With rivers and streams shriveling to a trickle, groundwater levels dropping and the state of California imposing severe surface water diversion restrictions? Well, a driller's enthusiasm can reach a near-hysterical pitch.
"I used to say I'm busier than a one-armed wallpaper hanger, but now I say I'm busier than a well driller in a drought," says Dave Fisch, owner of Fisch Drilling, after first laughing gustily at my "how's the business these days?"
Dickey likewise laughs at the question and says, "I cannot remember this many phone calls, ever."
Applications for permits to extract groundwater have indeed risen. In 2008, says Carolyn Hawkins with Humboldt County's environmental health division, there were 48 applications. In 2012, there were 60, and in 2013 the number jumped to 111. So far this year, the county's received 110 applications. Hawkins attributes some of the increase not just to the drought, but also to a rise in construction.
The bulk of the folks clamoring for wells are in the rural reaches of the county, Fisch and Dickey say.
Fisch, who operates out of Hydesville, says his business volume increased about 30 percent in 2013, and has gone up another 50 percent this year. Fisch has been drilling wells for 35 years, ever since he was a kid down in the Central Valley working for his dad (who drilled for 45 years). He's had his own company 20 years; his son and son-in-law work with him. He has two rigs that do geotechnical and environmental drilling all over the state. But two-thirds of his business is drilling for water, with three big rigs that ply the water tables of Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte and Mendocino counties. He says his water rigs are always busy from late spring to fall. But by the end of June this year, he says, he had enough permitted work on the board to get him through the whole year. "Everybody's panicked about the water," Fisch says. "But I'm not taking a lot of new customers right now. I tell 'em, 'I'll put you on my waiting list.'"
That waiting list has doubled in the last few years to about 40 customers —including homeowners needing drinking water, ranchers in the river bottoms needing a well dropped deeper or a new one dug, and marijuana growers in the hills scared, says Fisch, by an increased state crackdown on illegal (unpermitted) stream diversions into resorting to groundwater. Most of these people willing — desperate, in some cases — to fork out between $6,000 and $10,000 for a new well live in the river bottoms or up in the hills.
Dickey, based in McKinleyville, estimates his calls have gone up 50 to 60 percent since last year. He and his brother bought the business from their dad, Elmer Dickey, in the late 1990s; their grandfather Rolland Rich started it in the late 1950s. Now Rolland, Stan's boy, and John, Stuart's boy, are in the business.
The company only does water wells. And though he's getting plenty of calls from folks in the hills — yes, many of them "other" farmers — most of the people calling him these days, says Dickey, are the dairy ranchers out in the river bottoms along the Eel, Van Duzen and Mad rivers. In some cases, these ranchers' wells have lost pressure because the water table's dropped too low (a result of drought as well as upstream diversions). In others, ranchers with "junior water rights" to river or stream water have temporarily lost their right to divert because of new emergency drought restrictions imposed by the state that allow only people with senior water rights — in place since before 1914 — to keep diverting water. (An Associated Press investigation into senior water rights holders in California identified 295 of them in Humboldt County, including 115 on the Eel River and 22 on the Mad.)
Only about 10 percent of the drilling is to drop old wells deeper, say both Fisch and Dickey. Most old wells, especially in the river bottoms, were drilled in the '50s and '60s. They're shallow (around 40- to 50-feet deep), crumbly and hard to rehabilitate.
Putting in a well isn't always the answer, though, acknowledges Fisch. Sometimes, the geology of a location just won't permit it.
"Groundwater in Humboldt is an odd thing," Fisch says. "Humboldt's one of the hardest places to predict where water's going to be. It has a lot of faulting, sandstones, melanges. It's a jumbled geology. Some of the formations are really thick, some are very young," unfractured and hard to drill in.
Along the county's rivers, the groundwater flows through unconfined aquifers defined by sand and gravels. But most of Humboldt County, he says, has what are called perched aquifers — pockets of water confined in fractured rock sitting on top of an impermeable layer.
"You can find perched water at 60 to 80 feet or at 200 to 300 feet," Fisch says.
Sometimes there's enough in the pocket to supply a well; sometimes not. The deeper the pocket's sitting, the less a drought affects it.
David Renner, of Diamond Point Dairy based in Ferndale, is one of those ranchers who can't be rescued by a well driller. Oh, on one of his family's ranches the wells — domestic and agricultural — are doing fine, water-high and pumping strong. But another ranch uses river water to irrigate pasture for his cows, and that use has been curtailed under the new restrictions because he has a junior water right.
"And we can't drill a well there because of the geology," he says, explaining that it's a sticky blue shale.
So he's buying hay to make up for those lost fields, which he says "is going to be terribly expensive."
"I'll probably have to pick up two more loads of hay a month, so the cost could go up $20,000 a month," Renner says.
There's not much money in dairy farming, Renner adds. And it steams him that the new surface-water restrictions don't apply to people with riparian rights — that is, folks diverting water from a stream or river that runs through or abuts the land they're watering. Renner and many others have what are called appropriative rights — their lands are not connected to the waterways from which they're diverting.
Renner complains that while growers in the hills are sitting pretty — as long as they register their diversions — "farmers down here, doing everything right, we're getting hosed."
Cheryl Laffranchi, who with her husband, Don, runs Northcoast Pumphouse in Ferndale, says the biggest blame for the Eel River Valley's water problems — and for impacts to fish in the river — falls on water diversions that happen far upstream at the Potter Valley Project (which has a senior water right), where dams divert water away from the Eel River watershed and take it south.
"That is part of the problem," says Laffranchi. "And the state never addresses that problem. If the water were in the river, ranchers would have enough."
But the drought's still a problem, there and elsewhere in the county and the state. The well drillers are drilling as fast as they can, and telling people to hold their horses.
"I've got people screaming, 'Please come to me! Please come to me!" says Dickey, who has about 50 people on a waiting list. "I tell them, 'I will take care of the people that started our business, and then I'll come to you.'"
Fisch holds to a similar code of honor.
"A lot of people have called me this year and said, 'I know you're busy, get me done when you can," Fisch says. "But a guy called yesterday and said, ''I'll give you an extra $4,000 if you come do mine next. I said, 'I can't do that.' I'm not going to be bought."
Both drillers say they enjoy the booming business. But they wouldn't mind rain. Fisch worries that too many years of drought and overdrafting the water table could lead to saltwater infiltration.
"We pray for rain every day," says Dickey. "I don't want to see people struggle. I come home and the wife will ask me what's the matter, and I say, 'We're not moving quickly enough.' She says, 'You're going full blast.'"