Lawsuit filed to halt use of Olympic Club well
By Melissa T. Miller, Special to the Independent
June 27, 2001
The Olympic Club has been forced to wait longer to begin implementing their
operate a new water well on their property, after an environmental group sued to have
them stopped while legal questions about such projects are resolved.
The Committee to Save Lake Merced petitioned the San Mateo Superior Court
issue a temporary restraining order to stop the Olympic Club from drilling a well that
was approved within a day of a precedent-setting case ruling against the California
Golf Club in South San Francisco that could change the way the county's health
department issues water well permits. A San Mateo County judge allowed the
Olympic Club to drill and test the new well, but told the Olympic Club not to operate
the well until questions regarding the permitting process were resolved in court.
This is the latest development in the Olympic Club's pursuit to build a
well on their property - which the club says is a replacement for a well that was
retired and dismantled earlier this year - and is necessary to their award-winning golf
club operations. The second well is necessary in case their primary well fails, so that
a continuous water source can be guaranteed to keep their greens in the condition
that has made it one of the top PGA tour sites in the country.
This legal action follows on the heels of rising criticism from environmental
groups who have been fighting to have water levels restored at Lake Merced, which
have been declining sharply over the last several years. Though the Olympic Club
and two nearby private golf courses - which include the Lake Merced Golf Club and
the San Francisco Golf Club - use only 10 percent of the total water being pumped
out of the underground aquifer that also provides about 50 percent of Daly City and
San Bruno's drinking water, environmentalists argue the golf clubs proximity to Lake
Merced has a disproportionate effect on the lake's declining water levels. The lake
currently holds approximately half of its historical volume, and by some estimates,
may become a mudflat in less than 10 years, and going down the drain with it is a
decades-long history of being one of the nation's premier urban trout fisheries, habitat
for threatened and endangered species, and is a popular walking and picnicking
destination for both San Francisco and San Mateo residents.
The Olympic Club's coastal property straddles the San Francisco-San Mateo
line. In February, the Olympic Club tried to drill a well on the San Francisco portion of
its property, in an area known to be productive for wells. However, within days of the
California Coastal Commission beginning an investigation and the San Francisco
Independent's questions as to whether or not the new well would fall within the
California Coastal Zone and thus to be subject to permitting process beyond the San
Francisco Health Department, the Olympic Club said that test well site was too
sandy and that it may damage their pumping equipment, and subsequently decided
to abandon the site, though the Olympic Club failed to make public their drilling logs
which would have substantiated their statement.
The Olympic Club, about one month later, applied for a water well permit
Mateo County, and along with their application, submitted a letter from a private
survey firm that attested the new well site selected was not in the Coastal Zone.
However, the permitting process for this site has been slow because of pending
litigation against a South San Francisco golf club and the San Mateo Health
Department for failing to follow California Environmental Quality Act laws.
"We really don't want to turn the Olympic Club's grass brown," said Jerry
Cadagan of the Committee to Save Lake Merced. "It's fair to say that we are trying to
encourage San Francisco and San Mateo counties to build water recycling plants to
provide water to irrigators. On top of that, the County of San Mateo has simply
ignored their responsibilities under CEQA, and there is this growing risk of salt water
intrusion into the water supply. We hope to make them comply with the law, and put
pressure on all parties concerned to get some recycled water facilities built so
irrigators won't be depleting the aquifer."
The legal question to be settled in the case is if there should be CEQA
environmental review before permission is granted to the Olympic Club to use the
new well on their property. The Olympic Club argues that their project is exempt from
CEQA review because the new well is meant to be a replacement to a well that was
dismantled earlier this year.
The Committee to Save Lake Merced said there are two reasons why they believe
they will prevail against the county, and why the Olympic Club will may face further
delays in the approval of their well application. Their first legal argument is that the
county failed in their responsibility look to the overall effects of the Olympic Club's
application - as mandated by CEQA - when it failed to consider the current project in
the context of another Olympic Club water well application currently pending in the
County's Planning Department for a retroactive Coastal Permit for their only
operational well that happens to be in the state coastal zone. According to the legal
argument, a coastal permit should have been issued before that well went into
operation in 1994. Also, the committee argues the County Health Department should
also consider the cumulative effects of other irrigation well projects currently pending
in the area, such as the California Golf Club's application for a new well to irrigate
greens in South San Francisco, as well as a Colma developer's application to expand
a golf course on top a former landfill that will inevitably use more water. Also, both
the City of Daly City and the San Francisco Zoo have also recently installed new
"We were pleased when the court refused to stop the construction project,"
Maddow, an attorney representing the Olympic Club. "The Olympic Club is seeking
to install a well to replace half of its water supply that was lost when an existing well
failed in the year 2000. We intend to litigate the matter vigorously, and we expect to
San Mateo Chief Deputy Counsel Michael Murphy said that he does believe
Olympic Club is entitled to a CEQA exemption for their current well project. Also, his
department is still considering if they will appeal a ruling made last month in the case
of the California Golf Club where a judge ruled that the health department's previous
policy of approving all water well applications without any regards to environmental
impacts was in violation of CEQA. Previously, the health department only checked
new wells to make sure the water it was producing was of sufficient good quality, and
that there is no risk of contamination entering the well. The health department
currently does not perform inspections of water wells once they are approved, nor do
they monitor the amount of water each individual well is extracting, according to
Dean Peterson, director of Environmental Health in the San Mateo County Health
Peterson said he has been instructed by the County Counsel's office to
any new water well permits until legal questions regarding how the health department
is to apply CEQA rules has been resolved. The county health department is,
however, issuing permits to municipalities to drill monitoring wells that will measure
ground water quality and quantities, but will not be used production.
San Francisco is still years away from building a recycled water plant.
Daly City has
applied for funds to build a recycled water plant to deliver irrigation-quality water to
the Olympic Club, the San Francisco Golf Club and the Lake Merced Golf Club, but
is still haggling over finances with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the
golf clubs and with the state to get funds for the project.
The hearing on the Olympic Club's application is scheduled for July 19
in San Mateo
Superior Court, with Judge Judith W. Kozloski presiding.