A replacement well on the 225-acre Leali Ranch in Marshall that will feed operations at Hog Island Oyster Company has ignited concerns among neighbors over their fragile water sources. A hydrologist with the oyster company has determined that the well will not draw from the aquifers supplying nearby residents’ wells and springs.   David Briggs

A Tomales Bay oyster company’s request for a coastal permit to build a replacement well on a neighboring ranch has fomented concerns among some residents that their limited groundwater supply could become further strained.

Hog Island Oyster Company, a Marshall-based oyster farm and purveyor that employs over 100 people in California and Washington, is facing salinity intrusion in its current well, according to the company’s co-owner, Terry Sawyer. 

Seeking a water source beyond the bay’s salty reach, Mr. Sawyer and his partner, John Finger, acquired a deed in January from the owner of the 225-acre Leali Ranch, which overlooks the business. The deed grants the company a maximum of 14,400 gallons of water a day, or about 10 gallons a minute. If the replacement well—which is already built but is not yet connected to the company’s outpost on Highway One—fails to produce that flow, the oyster company could build another well to match the difference.

Eight Marshall households expressed doubts about Hog Island’s plans in a letter to the county this month, arguing that the new well would stress the town’s water supply, a problem that could be exacerbated by future droughts.

The letter also expressed concerns over the accuracy of the county’s maps of five existing wells and 10 springs that serve 25 families. One of those wells serves 16 families as part of a small system called the Marshall Aqua Improvement Forum, or MAIF.

Compounding the concerns is a newly permitted well for the Marshall Tavern that lies a mere 1,000 feet from the Hog Island well.

The letter asked for a “data-based assessment” of the likely impacts that both wells will have on the town’s water sources, as well as on the nearby creek. 

A three to five-day test in which water would be simultaneously pumped from the Hog Island and the Marshall Tavern wells could assess the potential impacts on local groundwater, the letter stated.

But Mr. Sawyer says his hydrologist, Michael Malone, conducted a pumping test—albeit one that did not include the tavern’s well. 

Mr. Malone said in a letter to the county that although the replacement well is within the same geologic area as the tavern well, the gap between them and the nature of the bedrock—which has impermeable zones between the well sites, according to a geologic map from the 1970’s—makes the possibility of a connection between the water sources unlikely.

Mr. Malone also said that the MAIF well is over a mile away and draws on groundwater not connected to the aquifers feeding the Hog Island well.

Mr. Sawyer has also countered fears about the volume of water his company might consume. State drinking water regulations limit his well to five gallons a minute, and the solar energy that will power the pumps will disappear at night, bringing that amount down further. 

Furthermore, he said, during peak holiday weekends, Hog Island only uses 1,500 gallons a day—an average of one gallon a minute in a 24-hour period—which is roughly the amount used by the 16 homes that comprise MAIF.

“We’re all faced with the same problem. Water is a resource that’s precious. We should not be squandering it, we should not be wasting it,” Mr. Sawyer said.

The letter from the eight households expresses concerns that Hog Island’s deed prohibits those who have rights to water on the ranch from siting new wells within a 1,500-foot radius of the replacement well. That excludes 160 acres of land from future drilling, the letter stated.

But Mr. Sawyer said he agreed to reduce that radius to 500 feet to accommodate the concerns, adding that the area was critical to protecting the oyster

“I need water,” he said.

The company has already spent almost $200,000 to comply with regulatory and permitting requirements, “and we’re not done,” Mr. Sawyer added.

According to a letter sent in April by Gerry Smith, the head of MAIF, two replacement wells were built on the Leali Ranch in 2008 under deeded rights after existing wells had failed.

All stakeholders in the discussion over the well have bemoaned the lack of communication from the county. 

Marshall residents detailed a failure to adequately inform them of the well in the first place. They had only five days to comment from the time the announcement was posted at the Leali Ranch, they claim.

But the county appears to have slowed down its permitting process. Ms. Jackson said a hearing on the permit had not yet been scheduled, leading Mr. Sawyer to fear he might not have a green light to begin construction of the pipeline before the rainy season—now just a few months away.

When the system is finally complete, Hog Island plans to use water from the well to feed a new fire hydrant in downtown Marshall. Currently the closest hydrant is about two miles away, near the Marconi Conference Center.

The company is also hosting a free community breakfast this month to connect with residents.

For Mr. Sawyer, this episode has raised larger questions about the future of Marshall’s water.

“If in 10 or 20 years we get to a process where there’s a community system, even if it’s a small community system, we’re willing to consider having this well as part of the community system,” he said. “We’ve said that. There should be a willingness to share this resource. It’s a common resource coming out of the ground. And everyone that has a well should be willing to share their water.”