California wells run dry as drought depletes groundwater
FAIRMEAD, Calif. (AP) — As California’s drought worsens, Elaine Moore’s family is running out of an increasingly precious resource: water.
Central Valley almond growers saw two wells go dry this summer. Two of her adult children now get water from a new well the family drilled after the old one went dry last year. She even provides water to a neighbor whose well has run dry.
“It was so dry last year. We haven’t had much rain. We haven’t had much snow,” said Moore, standing next to a dry well on his property in Chowchilla, Calif. “Everyone is very careful about the water they use. In fact, my granddaughter empties the small children’s pool to flush the toilet.
In the middle of a the mega-drought hits the American Westmore rural communities lose access to groundwater because intensive pumping depletes underground aquifers that are not replenished by rain and snow.
More than 1,200 wells have gone dry this year across the state, an increase of nearly 50% over the same period last year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. In contrast, less than 100 dry wells were reported each year in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
The groundwater crisis is most severe in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, which exports fruits, vegetables and nuts around the world.
Dwindling groundwater supplies reflect the severity of California’s drought, now entering its fourth year. According to the US Drought Monitor, over 94% of the state is in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought.
California has just had its three driest years on record, and state water officials said Monday they are bracing for another dry year as the weather phenomenon known as La Nina is expected to occur for the third consecutive year.
Farmers get little surface water from depleted state reservoirs, so they pump more groundwater to irrigate their crops. This is causing ground water tables to drop across California. State data shows 64% of wells are at lower than normal water levels.
Water shortages are already reducing agricultural production in the region, with farmers being forced to lay fields fallow and allow orchards to wither. An estimated 531,000 acres (215,000 hectares) of farmland has not been planted this year due to a lack of irrigation water, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
As climate change brings warmer temperatures and more severe droughts, cities and states around the world face water shortages as lakes and rivers dry up. Many communities are pumping more groundwater and depleting aquifers at an alarming rate.
“This is a major challenge not just for California, but for communities across the West making progress in adapting to climate change,” said Andrew Ayres, water researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California. .
Madera County, north of Fresno, has been particularly hard hit because it relies heavily on groundwater. The county has reported about 430 dry wells so far this year.
In recent years, the county has seen the rapid expansion of thirsty almond and pistachio orchards which are generally irrigated by agricultural wells that are deeper than domestic wells.
“The bigger straw is going to suck the water right below the smaller straw,” said Madeline Harris, policy manager at advocacy group Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability. She was standing next to a municipal well that ran dry in Fairmead, a town of 1,200 people surrounded by walnut orchards.
“Municipal wells like this are being put at risk and running dry due to groundwater overdraft issues from agriculture,” Harris said. “There are families who don’t have access to running water right now because they have dry domestic wells.”
Residents with dry wells can get help from a state program that provides bottled water as well as storage tanks that are regularly filled by water delivery trucks. The state also provides money to replace dry wells, but it takes a long time to get a new one.
Not everyone gets help.
Thomas Chairez said his Fairmead property, which he rents to a family of eight, draws water from his neighbour’s well. But when it dried up two years ago, its tenants lost access to running water.
Chairez is trying to get the county to provide a storage tank and water delivery service. For now, his tenants have to fill 5-gallon (19-litre) buckets at a friend’s house and haul water by car every day. They use the water for cooking and taking showers. They have portable toilets in the yard.
“They survive,” Chairez said. “In Mexico, I did that. I used to carry two buckets myself from afar. So we have to survive somehow. It’s an emergency.”
Well drillers are in high demand as water pumps stop working in the San Joaquin Valley.
Ethan Bowles and his colleagues recently drilled a new well at a ranch in the Madera Ranchos neighborhood, where many wells have gone dry this year.
“It’s almost non-stop phone calls just because of the constant drop in the water table,” said Bowles, who works for Chowchilla-based Drew and Hefner Well Drilling. “Most residents have had their wells for many years and all of a sudden the water stops flowing.”
His company now has to drill between 500 and 600 feet (152 to 183 meters) to provide customers with a steady supply of groundwater. It is a few hundred feet deeper than older wells.
“The wells just have to go deeper,” Bowles said. “You have to hit a different aquifer and give them another part of that water table so they can actually have fresh water for their house.”
In March, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to slow a well-drilling frenzy over the past few years. The temporary measure prohibits local agencies from issuing permits for new wells that could damage nearby wells or structures.
California’s groundwater problems come as local agencies seek to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed in 2014 to prevent overpumping of groundwater during the last drought. The law requires regional agencies to sustainably manage their aquifers by 2042.
Water experts believe the law will lead to more sustainable groundwater supplies over the next two decades, but the road will be a bumpy one. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that about 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of farmland, or about 10 percent of the current total, will need to come out of production over the next two decades.
“These communities are going to be affected by clean water supplies and loss of jobs,” said Isaya Kisekka, a groundwater expert at the University of California, Davis. “There is a lot of migration of agricultural workers as this land is set aside.”
Farmers and valley dwellers are hoping for help from above. “Hopefully we’ll get a lot of rain,” Chairez said. “There is a big need: water. We need water, water, water.
Follow Terry Chea on Twitter: @terrychea
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