Water woes and water flows in Woodlake

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Landowner pumps groundwater from privately owned property directly into Bravo Lake in Woodlake

By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN

WOODLAKE – As if to be squeezed, twisted, and shaken, some feel as if their right to water has been wrung dry. For the Central Valley, there is no one left unharmed by the drought. That is exactly the sentiment of Jeff Johnson, a concerned resident among a community facing affliction in a time when water might be more valuable than gold.

Sitting on the south side of Bravo Lake a collection of rural residents lie just outside of Woodlake are beginning to see their wells go dry. While the drought might be easy to blame there is reason to believe that intensive pumping of a corporate neighbor could be the cause.

Johnson has observed the completion of a project from beginning and now into full operation. Where a swath of prosperous olive trees once stood now lies the graves of an orchard also on the south side of Bravo Lake. It has become a familiar scene, trees ripped out by the root so as to not absorb water. Although, where orchards lie dead, there is little need for the existence of a water pump, pulling water from the ground. Nonetheless, this is exactly what Johnson observed.

After the orchard was laid to waste, trenches were dug, pipe was installed, and pumps were turned on. The purpose of which is to pump ground water directly into Bravo Lake. According to Johnson the pumps have been running nonstop since they were turned on.

Since water began rushing from the pipeline into Bravo Lake there have been two well failures, one of which was remedied by an extension to reach new depths, and another being effected with poor quality.

“One woman I know is having to find a ride into town to take her kids to take a shower, and then they have to find a ride back,” said Johnson.

However, these rural residents are not the only ones to notice a difference in well depth. The City of Woodlake is concerned as well. Two of the city’s five pumps are located near Bravo Lake where water levels have dropped 12 to 15 feet in the two weeks since the private pumping began earlier this month.

“We have seen some drop off,” said Woodlake City Administrator Ramon Lara. “Our wells are 150 to 200 feet deep with two next to Bravo Lake and three next to St. Johns.”

Johnson said neighboring well depths tend to range between 60 and 80 feet and are beginning to experience problems consistent with well failure.

The property along the southern bank of Bravo Lake where the water is being extracted is owned by the St. John’s River Ranch, LP which is in turn owned by Bronson Van Wyke of Tuckerman, Arkansas.

According to Tulare County property records, Van Wyke purchased the property from Woodlake Ranch Inc. in October of 2014 along with an easement for an existing well and pumping plant. In addition Van Wyke purchased the property with a joint well and pump users agreement signed by former owners Beth Krakov and Randy Childress.

Van Wyke can be considered a major player in the agriculture industry of California, the Midwest and Mississippi Delta, according to an article by Pingry.org, Van Wyke’s private school alma mater in New Jersey. He is the managing partner in an Ag investment group in the Midwest and South for the production of corn, soybeans, cotton and rice; and in the San Joaquin Valley for citrus and grapes, shipping more than 2 million cartons of citrus per year. Some of his firms customers include Cargill, Robert Mondavi and Safeway.

Moreover, Van Wyke is well aware of his right to pump water beneath his property and use it in any way he deems fit. In fact Van Wyke served as a liaison between the Central Valley Water Districts and Clinton Administration to advise on the best practices of water usage. For the last 13 years he has served on the Board of Directors for Winrock International, a global non-profit with the mission of “increasing economic opportunity and sustain natural resources.”

Mark Larson, general manager from the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District (KDWCD), said ground water rights greatly differ from surface water rights. Surface water is rainfall and snowmelt collected in lakes and rivers, stored in reservoirs and ponding basins. Afterwards, they are diverted through a network of private and public ditches and canals and delivered to farmers and municipalities. The discussion over historic water rights centers on those who have laid claim to captured water going back to the mid 1800s in California.

Groundwater, on the other hand, is greatly owned by property owners who can choose to do what they want with it.

“Groundwater rights are very general but over time the description has been narrowed through court cases in California,” Larson said. The additional precision of the definition precludes property owners from harming the water table for their neighbors and that if they are pumping the water must be used for a “reasonable and beneficial use.” Although, what is determined to be reasonable and beneficial is up for interpretation, and is not settled until it reaches the justice system.

“A hydrologist would have to evaluate the situation to really challenge someone’s right to groundwater beneath their property,” Larson said. “These situations generally come down to a court case between two parties.”

In the event of a court case, the burden of proof lies on the one making the accusation that the other party’s water use is negatively effecting the accusers access to water.

Bravo Lake, who is receiving the water, is owned by the Wutchumna Ditch Company. According to the Sierra2thesea news service, a Central Valley and Central Coast news agency, Administrator Lara, representatives of the land owner, and Wutchumna convened to discuss the topic.

The outcome of the meeting ended in a seven day pumping hiatus beginning last Friday, April 24 to see if the city wells respond.

Johnson has made contact with several governmental agencies looking for remedies that might help solve or mitigate the pumping of water. As Johnson’s community resides outside of Woodlake’s city boundary Johnson contacted his Tulare County Representative Steve Worthley. After press time on Tuesday, Worthley was scheduled to meet with Jeff Johnson and the community.

This will continue as an ongoing story, and will be reported on as more facts continue to come to light.

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