Lingering water questions sank a developer’s hopes for a new subdivision south of Lake Lowell.
On Monday, the Canyon County Board of Commissioners gave Taylor Jene Homes a thumbs down on the company’s proposal to build 35 homes on 122 acres east of Sky Ranch Road, near Skyview Street. This decision follows months of complaints from neighbors who say nearly a dozen wells in the area have gone dry in recent months, and development is to blame.
After multiple hearings, two out of the three county commissioners sided with the neighbors. Commissioner Leslie Van Beek and Commissioner Pam White said the zoning of the infill project with large lots made sense for the area, but they weren’t convinced there was enough water to serve the new homes and existing residents.
More questions than answers
Water played a pivotal role in the fight over this development. In the hours of hearings on the project and hundreds of letters, neighbors told stories of wells filling with sand and losing their water in recent months. This has been especially bad this year as a drought parches the Treasure Valley.
The developer hired hydrogeologists and other experts to study the site and testify that there was enough water for the project. Eventually, the Idaho Department of Water Resources stepped in to give their opinion on the area’s water levels and the aquifer’s health. The developer also dropped the number of homes from 47 down to 35 in the hopes of getting approval.
But, the water reports only raised more questions for Van Beek. At the start of Monday’s deliberation, she rattled off a list of inconsistencies she saw in IDWR’s report that concerned her. She said there were places where the report noted the aquifer was struggling and others where it was found to be fine. Van Beek also questioned the study area the researchers looked at.
These questions were enough for her to deny the project, despite how much she liked the development itself otherwise.
“There’s conflicting evidence on the record with one government organization, so what side do you land on?” she said. “They have reports saying there’s a stressed aquifer and reports that say there’s no decline. How do you move forward?”
More testing? Or a community well?
White had similar concerns. For her to approve the project, she hoped to see studies of more recent data of water levels in the area in test wells and more recent data to determine if the area should be designated a critical groundwater area or not. This cannot be legally required under code, but White requested further study before the application might get refiled.
“We have all of this supporting documentation (saying there is enough water), and I don’t mean this flippantly, but so?” she said. “When I look at that one of 50 years in the business of drilling wells, I am not going to argue his experience, but that was April (data), and just since the first of July we have heard and today is the second of August, and we have heard numerous communications regarding wells that have gone dry.”
Commissioner Keri Smith was more supportive of the project. At a couple of points during the hearing, she pitched the possibility of a development agreement with conditions for the subdivision to limit the impact. She said many water concerns could have been mitigated by the county requiring a community well system instead of each new home having its own well drilled.
“We have a need for high-end opportunities for residents to live in, and this (project) would have provided that,” Smith said. “I do want safe water opportunities that live there and already live there and future residents, so I understand where you’re coming from.”
IDWR cites faulty wells, difficult aquifer
At the hearing for the project on July 26th, Commissioners quizzed neighbors and hydrogeologists alike on what they saw in the area. A principal engineer for IDWR, Nick Miller, told the board that long-term monitoring of the area from 2005 to 2020 showed water levels staying steady or even rising slightly. But, due to the layers of clay and sad under the surface and construction methods of the wells, residents in the neighborhood can experience a lot of variability in their water supply.
“We know that it’s an area that doesn’t have a lot of surface recharge, and there wasn’t historically a lot of surface water farming,” Miller told the commissioners in July. “The geology is pretty complex, and you can drill a hole and complete it in one layer to find water, but if you complete your well in not a good water-bearing zone, you could pump your well dry very easily because it doesn’t produce enough water.”
In the report, IDWR suggested that if residents all stopped pumping from their wells for a short period of time, water levels would rise again, which prompted a low chuckle from the audience when Smith read it aloud Monday. According to the department, these “cones of depression” can be caused by several wells all pumping from the aquifer in a tightly packed area like the subdivision near the proposed project, where lots are roughly between one and two acres.
‘People out there are losing their water’
Miller said it’s common for wells in this area to be drilled without the proper screening to keep sand and sediment from collapsing into the shaft and other problems which could be exacerbated by the low water year. But, neighbors were not convinced.
Claudia Haynes has lived in the area for twenty years and has wondered about the water supply for years. In the last month, she told the board that her well went dry along with several of her neighbors, leaving her to shower at friends’ houses. Haynes cast doubt on the IDWR report’s findings that the well construction was to blame, not rapidly dropping water levels.
“We have property rights, and one of those is to have essential services,” she said. “Water is an essential service. It says it in our Idaho state law. It says it in our ordinances. It says it in our comprehensive plan. I’m telling you that people out there are losing their water.”