Maderas given 3-2 Poway council OK to use water wells
By Steve Dreyer
Poway City Council members wrapped up a four-hour public hearing Tuesday night by voting 3-2 to permit the Maderas Golf Club to resume using its water wells.
Councilmen Steve Vaus and Dave Grosch voted against the motion, saying they were not convinced of proponents’ claims that turning the well pumps back on would not impact water levels in wells in the neighboring Old Coach Estates development or habitat in and around the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve.
Mayor Don Higginson, Deputy Mayor John Mullin and Councilman Jim Cunningham said the scientific data supported the claim that the golf course and its neighbors drew groundwater from separate sources.
“I have to rely on the experts,” Higginson said. The decision on whether to support changes to the golf club’s conditional use permit “is pretty straightforward,” he said.
The city staff had recommended approval of the modifications, including one that the golf club’s owners opposed: requiring a public hearing and council approval if additional wells are to be constructed. Higginson tried, but failed to convince his colleagues to drop that condition.
Sunroad has agreed to a city condition that the annual “cap” of water that can be drawn from the wells be reduced from 280 acre feet to 173 acre feet (56.4 million gallons.) Company vice president Tom Story said the lower amount represents the average annual consumption over the period before the wells were shut off.
For the first 12 years of its existence, the luxury golf course had depended on a combination of well water and municipal water to keep its approximately 88 acres of landscaping green. The well use was governed by a 2000 CUP that limited the golf club to drawing up to 280 acre feet (91.2 million gallons) of underground water per year. The monitoring of water levels at two test wells was required. In August of 2009, the water level in the Old Coach Estates well dropped below 180 feet. Under terms of the CUP, Maderas had to partially shut down its pumping. It also began the process of applying for changes in the CUP. In August 2011, all pumping was stopped in response to concerns expressed by neighbors that their well water levels were dropping as well.
Since then, Maderas has commissioned reports that conclude there is no connection between the underground water sources feeding the golf course and the neighboring properties. The residents commissioned a report presented in May 2012 that concluded that there is a connection and that sustained pumping by Maderas would impact Old Coach Estates wells. The city then hired a third-party engineering firm, Dudek, (paid for by the owners of the golf course) that in most respects sided with the golf course’s position.
A city staff report notes that since the Maderas wells were shut down in August 2011, water levels in those wells has increased while the levels of four private wells in Old Coach Estates has continued to decline.
On Tuesday night, the council heard from 17 residents opposed to Maderas being allowed to resume pumping. Several questioned the findings of the various reports and compared them to the their real-world experiences of private well-water levels dropping significantly in recent years.
Old Coast Estates resident Justin Owens, for example, said his well went dry 25 days ago and that he’s had to pay $13,000 to the city to be connected to the municipal water system. In his view, the city has come up with a new business plan to generate new revenues “while allowing Maderas to extract all the ground water.”
Neighbor Ron Sawzak said his water level has dropped 200 feet in five years even though he’s pumping half as much water. Like several others speaking. Sawzak questioned Sunroad’s credibility. He and others recounted the early days of development of the golf course, when grading and water pumping permits were not issued and ecologically sensitive lands were damaged and established water pumping limits were ignored.
Maderas supporters include three company executives and six other local residents who praised the golf course’s national reputation and its water conservation efforts. They noted that many golf courses are on the brink of extinction, largely due to the high cost of importing water for landscape irrigation.
Supporter Kevin McNamara called the Sunroad team “class acts, good people” and suggested that the long-term solution to the Old Coach Estate water problem should involve the extension of recycled water lines from the business park to the area.
The public hearing drew well over 100 spectators, who remained subdued and polite throughout the night.
Toward the end of the meeting, Grosch said he was struggling with the key question: Would neighborhood wells be impacted by the resumption of ground water use by Maderas?
“What if we’re wrong?” he asked. “I think there are (aquifer) connections everywhere.”
Higginson said that if the experts are wrong, the city can always modify the golf course’s CUP at some future time.
Vaus, who likened the history between Maderas and the city to “a script from a bad movie,” said some of that speaks to the credibility, or lack of, by Sunroad.
He also quoted from the natural resources section of the city’s General Plan, which places a high priority on the preservation of groundwater supplies.
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