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Well water debate deepens

Acton and Agua Dulce residents voice concerns over costly new water rules set by county

Posted: February 25, 2009 12:53 a.m.
Updated: February 25, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Agua Dulce resident Tim Orteg shares his well water woes with more than 250 others at a joint town hall meeting of Acton and Agua Dulce town councils Monday. Agua Dulce resident Tim Orteg shares his well water woes with more than 250 others at a joint town hall meeting of Acton and Agua Dulce town councils Monday.
Agua Dulce resident Tim Orteg shares his well water woes with more than 250 others at a joint town hall meeting of Acton and Agua Dulce town councils Monday.

Every time Kim Fahey takes a shower he says a small prayer for the water that costs so much and worked so hard to get to him.

More than 250 of Fahey's neighbors from Acton and Agua Dulce - many of them white-haired, wearing denim and angry - packed Acton's High Desert Middle School gym Monday for a special joint town council session on costly new water rules laid down by the county.

"This is for everyone in this room who has a well," Fahey said. "Every time I step into the shower I praise the Lord for the water that comes out because you have such a multitude of problems to keep your water working."

Pat Johnson, president of the Agua Dulce Town Council, called the town hall meeting to address one question: Are mandatory water well treatment devices and well yield requirements reducing your private property rights?

The raucous response of mainly rural folk was a resounding "yes."

Their message to the county was clear: Let us dig our wells and build our homes in peace without pestering.

"I can't tell you how happy I am with the turnout tonight," Johnson told residents, many of whom parked more than a football field from the school and walked in the dark to be there.

"We're going to need the support all the way through," she said to cheers and applause. "It's a grass-roots thing."

At issue are three costly conditions set down by the county:

n Well water regulations: Every home built must have a well that can pump three gallons of water per minute for 24 hours straight otherwise no building permit will be issued.

n Well water testing: Well owners must test for a variety of harmful substances including arsenic, the threshold of which is defined by the county department of environmental health.

n Water hauling: Homeowners who rely on water to be hauled to them cannot obtain building permits.

To meet these standards, private wells cost residents more than $85,000 for a 400-foot well and at least $107,000 for an 800-foot well, according to the group's Water Committee Chairman Don Henry.

Resident after resident sat down in front of the microphone to describe how county rules are eroding a rural way of life.

It just keeps getting harder and more costly to simply dig a well and build a house away from the bustle of the city, they said.

Tim Orteg and his wife are still waiting for a permit 20 months into building their latest home. They designed, built and moved into their first home - with permits - in 13 months.

"The county has gotten way out of line with the demands they're asking of us," said Orteg, adding it cost him $30,000 to drill a well and test its water.

"One of the issues that bothers me tremendously is the testing," he said. "To test our well we had to pump 30,000 gallons of water out of the ground."

The area is in a drought and has been for a long time, he said.

"It's a terrible waste of water," he said. Shortly after the test, the wells on both sides of Orteg's property went dry, he said.

"If I don't get a permit soon, I'm going to be priced right out of my retirement home," Orteg said. "I'm tired of the county being in my back pocket and telling me what to do."

That comment sparked thunderous applause inside the crowded school gym, from one raised basketball net to the other.
Next up to the microphone was George Sack Jr., an Agua Dulce resident since 1973.

"They don't want us to have wells anymore because the fifth district wants a large head count," he said. "So lets make them paupers on their own wells out here - that way we get rid of the special standards district."

That would permit rezoning to allow one house per 10,000-square-foot lot, he said.

Carlo Basail, an Agua Dulce resident since 1994, called the new county ordinances a money grab.

"I am really shocked and really upset at all these development twists," he said. "All these uncontrolled ordinances coming in - they are ways for the county to establish a new stream of revenue."

One resident threatened to withhold his vote at election time, informing the crowd that Norm Hickling, deputy to Supervisor Michael D. Anthonovich, was among them.

"The meeting was candid and a good one to have," Hickling said Tuesday.

"They're very protective of a rural lifestyle," he said, explaining county regulations stem from recommendations made by environmental health experts.

"They're not just something made in an arbitrary fashion. There's a rationale for everything put in place," Hickling said.


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