Lemon Cove Gravel Mines: A Draining History

This is part three of an ongoing series about CEMEX, water and wells going dry in Lemon Cove. The next article in the series will feature the arguments surrounding the construction of the McKay’s Point Reservoir.

The following is a letter to the Tulare County Planning Commission dated February 8, 1970 concerning Kaweah River Rock Mining Company.

This information has to do with the water level at my ranch near the proposed Pacific Coast Aggregate plant
I have been on my ranch since 1932. Since that time a centrifugal pump has been used for pumping water. The pump sat in an eight ft. pit, with water level being 3 feet below pump. Approx. 5 yrs ago a small rock plant was put in operation approx ¼ mile from my well. Out of their pit they pump approx 1,200 gals per min. back into the river channel. Since this plant began operation the water level has dropped approx. 8ft. to 10ft. where I was pumping approx 160 gals per min. before, I now only pump about 65 gals per min.
Yours Truly, Harold Ragle

Harold Ragle has since passed away but the problem hasn’t. This wasn’t the first documentation, nor would it be the last, about how gravel mining in the Kaweah River basin has adversely affected the underground aquifer.

Local farmers — such as George Clausen, pictured — want to know, why, if their wells are going dry because of the drought, the CEMEX ponds are brimming full of water.
Local farmers — such as George Clausen, pictured — want to know, why, if their wells are going dry because of the drought, the CEMEX ponds are brimming full of water.

Starting in the 1960s, John Dofflemyer engaged in a 13-year fight with the county over Artesia, a gravel mining company along Dry Creek that ended up going broke and leaving town. According to Dofflemyer, the Artesia mine was continually out of compliance and the county refused to do anything about it. Among the many infractions were: They didn’t honor the setbacks and mined too close to his property; they dumped water from the gravel mine back into Dry Creek. But worst, the mine lowered Dofflemyer’s wells. He used a little centrifugal pump that produced 35 gallons a minute. After Artesia started digging in the Dry Creek aquifer, his well only produced five gallons a minute.

The goal of this article is to connect the dots. What happened to the wells going down or completely dry in February next to the Stillwell mine east of Lemon Cove is the same thing that has happened for the last 50 years in the Kaweah River basin. Anytime you disturb the underground aquifer it is going to adversely affect neighboring wells.

In the 1960s it was the Artesia Mine and Kaweah River Rock. In the seventies it was the Lemon Cove Project. In the eighties and nineties it was an addition to the Lemon Cove Project, and now it’s the Stillwell Project. All of these mines were granted their Conditional Use Permit (CUP) by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. Why, after John Dofflemyer ‘s 13-year fight explaining the adverse affects of mining in the river basin, does the debate continue?

This article can’t answer that question, but can review the events of the last few decades and possibly give pause the next time a gravel mining company comes knocking at Tulare County’s door.

The next big gravel mining operation after Artesia and Kaweah River Rock was the Lemon Cove project permitted by the county in 1971, and amended in 1985 to include a smaller piece of land next door. The permit was granted to RMC Pacific Materials Inc., a company that was later bought out by Cemex. Both the 1971 and the 1985 mines cover 378 acres and contain several open ponds, looking quite full, inside the mining area.

Just a stone’s throw from both mines lives Frank Callahan, a longtime Lemon Cove farmer. Callahan’s problems with Cemex have been twofold: first, with the gravel mine affecting his wells and, secondly, with their failed attempt at reclamation.

In 1986, a year after the smaller mine was producing gravel, Callahan’s well went from pumping 110 gallons per minute to pumping 35 gallons per minute. His well also went from 19 feet to 28.5 feet. Callahan complained to the BOS, which considered revoking the smaller parcel’s mining permit. It wasn’t until 1994 that RMC constructed and filled a recharge moat and Callahan’s wells went back to normal. RMC was negligent about filling the moat high enough to keep his wells producing, and Callahan had to go back to again complain to the BOS.

Facing the prospect of a full investigation because of Callahan’s water problems, RMC started consistently filling the recharge trench and Callahan’s wells again went back to normal. Astutely stated in long-time Lemon Cove farmer Nancy Lang’s letter in April of this year to RMA, “Unfortunately, the recharge moats are a double edged sword; while maintaining a more or less stable surface to water level, they also were masking the permanent adverse effects of removing the water bearing strata materials of sand, gravel and cobble that conducts our water, affecting our SWL and drawdown.”

In 1994, RMC had come to the same conclusion. They realized they had to keep the recharge trenches full to ward off legal action. RMC knew that if the issue were fully vetted it would prove that their mine was draining the aquifer and they may lose their permit. The same thing happened in 2000 with Cemex. Callahan wanted to pursue legal action against Cemex to address the issue of what would happen to the farmer’s wells after Cemex left town. But Cemex had the same legal team as RMC and built an efficient trench around the new smaller mine.

Because Callahan’s wells were artificially back to normal, his lawyers said he didn’t have a chance of winning in court.

Fourteen years later, now that Cemex has stopped filling the trenches because the gravel has run out, Callahan’s prediction has come true. His wells produce one third of what they used to. The problem started with Callahan’s wells then continued on down the line to Nancy Lang Cutler, Todd Dofflemyer, and George Clausen. All long-time local farmers, they presented their case to the BOS, first through letters and meetings that didn’t seem to resolve their issues, then through speaking during public comment and reaching out to the media.

All mining permits granted by BOS clearly state, “The project shall not interfere with any well or domestic water source located on adjacent or downstream properties.” Thus, it is Cemex’ obligation to fill the recharge moat until the land has been reverted back to what it was before the mine. In other words, they need to continue filling their moats until a reclamation project is complete and successful, not just because there is no more gravel. If the reclamation plan is too vague to legally force Cemex to comply, then the responsibility of getting the recharge trenches filled, and completing the reclamation, falls on the shoulders of Tulare County RMA.

Reclamation brings us to the second problem.

After Cemex finished extracting all the gravel they could from the small mine permitted in 1985, they converted the mine to farmland. Instead of reverting the land back to a porous substance where water could flow, CEMEX filled it with fine dirt. As Callahan stated in a letter to the BOS, “Another fact is, if you remove sand and rock from the water strata and replace it with dirt, the water cannot as readily flow through the aquifer. (Please note that Terminus Dam is a dirt-filled dam.)”

In short, converting formally sandy gravely land to farmland shut off that part of the aquifer and permanently damaged Callahan’s wells.

What Happens Now?

In response to the residential wells going dry next to the Stillwell Project, and the additional complaints about the older Lemon Cove mines, the RMA has ordered a peer review. Tully and Young of Sacramento was hired to complete the peer review and should be done by the end of the week. RMA will circulate the peer review to all parties concerned and they will have 30 days to submit their comments.

A staff report will be prepared containing the peer review, everyone’s comments about the peer review, comments during BOS meetings, and all previous letters. The staff report will be presented to the planning commission during a public hearing where all parties concerned will have their say. As a result of the planning commission, the RMA will then present their recommendations to the BOS and offer one or two alternative choices as well.

A separate staff report and public hearing may be necessary to address the two mines permitted in 1971 and 1985 because they were permitted without an EIR or CEQA approval.

“Right now we are in an organization of information stage. In the next few weeks we should have the peer review to put out for public comment. The only thing I can say right now is stay tuned,” said Mike Spata, head of the RMA.

And Finally…

In the meantime, our very own experienced and wise farmers have some old-fashioned, common sense, advice – for a lot less than what the county is paying Tully and Young. Pump the water from the ponds and fill the recharge trenches. Don’t reclaim the pits left over by the mine with fine dirt and block the aquifer. Lastly, and most importantly, quit mining in Kaweah River’s aquifer and dig your granite out of the sides of the foothills like Tom Cairns’ operation does.

The only gravel mine in the Kaweah River Basin brought to my attention that does not affect the aquifer is Tom Cairn’s operation–which probably explains why Cemex paid their $300-an-hour lawyers to write a scathing letter discrediting him.

What are the Lemon Cove farmer’s ultimate goals?

Nancy Cutler stated in her letter to the RMA, “Without adequate water we cannot farm. Our economic livelihood and the value of our land is ruined. I want to express my hope is that the Resource Management Agency will protect our interests and will work with us to assure that our historic water availability and quantity is maintained.”

Referring to converting the smaller mine to farmland and blocking the aquifer, Clausen said, “Our goal is to stop the mining companies from doing it again.

“Just make me whole; put me back where I was.” said Callahan.

Frank Callahan, George Clausen, Nancy Cutler, and John Dofflemyer aren’t just long-time Lemon Cove residents — their grandparents were long-time residents. And these farmers themselves are no spring chickens, so that tells you how far back their institutional memory goes. As Dofflemyer pointed out, “Cemex is only going to stay as long as the gravel holds out. Gravel mining is only a one-time extraction benefit. But farming produces a crop every year, and for every crop there is a benefit for the entire community.”

So who do we trust? A multi-national company who is going to skedaddle the day after they extract the last bit of gravel, or farming families who have been the caretakers of this land since the mid-1800’s?

The Artesia mine does have a happy ending, though. When Artesia went broke in 1972, a Los Angeles cement company was left holding the note. Dofflemyer met with them at their L.A. office and suggested that, since there was no gravel left, why not donate the land to a conservation trust? At first they hated the idea, because they didn’t like Dofflemyer.

But two weeks later, they donated the land and participated voluntarily in the clean-up. That land is now a beautiful piece of reclaimed property that is part of the Sequoia River Land Trust along Dry Creek Road. We have John Dofflemyer to thank for that.

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