California’s wells are drying up as drought depletes groundwater

FIRMAD, CA (AFP) – As California’s drought worsens, Eileen Moore’s family is running out of an increasingly valuable resource: water.

Almond growers in the Central Valley have had two wells dry up this summer. Two of her adult children now get water from a new well the family dug after the old well dried up last year. She even provides water for her neighbor whose well has dried up.

“It was very dry this last year. We didn’t have a lot of rain. We didn’t get a lot of snow,” Moore said as she stood next to a dry well on her property in Chuchilla, California. “Everyone is very careful about the water they use. In fact, my granddaughter empties the little kids’ pool to flush the toilets.”

Amidst the massive drought that plagued the American Westmore rural communities are losing access to groundwater Heavy pumping leads to the depletion of aquifers that are not replenished by rain and snow.

More than 1,200 wells dried up this year statewide, nearly a 50% increase from the same period last year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. By contrast, fewer than 100 dry wells were reported annually in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The groundwater crisis is intensifying in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, which exports fruits, vegetables and nuts to all parts of the world.

The shrinking groundwater supply reflects the severity of California’s drought, which is now entering its fourth year. According to the US Drought Observatory, More than 94% of the state experiences severe, severe or exceptional drought.

California just experienced three drought years on record, and state water officials said Monday that they are preparing for another dry year because the weather phenomenon known as La Nina is expected to occur for the third year in a row.

Farmers get little surface water from the state’s depleted reservoirs, so they are pumping more groundwater to irrigate their crops. This is causing the water level to drop throughout California. Country data shows that 64% of wells are below normal water levels.

The lack of water has already reduced agricultural production in the area as farmers are forced to rest fields and let orchards wither. According to the USDA, an estimated 531,000 acres (215,000 hectares) of farmland were not planted this year due to a lack of irrigation water.

As climate change leads to rising temperatures and severe droughts, cities and countries 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 to move forward with climate change adaptation,” said Andrew Ayres, a water researcher at the California Institute of Public Policy.

In Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, supervisors on Tuesday approved a six-month moratorium on drilling new groundwater wells. This came in the wake of a lawsuit alleging that the county was not adequately managing groundwater.

Madeira County, north of Fresno, has been hit particularly hard because it depends heavily on groundwater. The county has reported about 430 dry wells so far this year.

In recent years, the county has seen a rapid expansion of thirsty almond and pistachio orchards that are usually irrigated by agricultural wells that run deeper than local wells.

“The bigger straw will suck the water out right from the bottom of the small straw,” said Madeleine Harris, director of policy at the Leadership and Accountability Council’s Leadership Group. I stood next to the municipal well of Gaft in the town of Vermid, of 1,200, surrounded by walnut groves.

“Municipal wells like this are compromised and drying up due to groundwater overdraft issues from agriculture,” Harris said. “There are families who do not have access to running water at the moment because they have dry house wells.”

Residents with dry wells can get assistance from a government program that provides bottled water as well as storage tanks regularly filled by water delivery trucks. The state also provides funds to replace dry wells, but there is a long wait for new wells.

Not everyone gets help.

Thomas Shires said his property in Fermaid, which he rented to a family of eight, was getting water from his neighbor’s well. But when it dried up two years ago, tenants lost access to running water.

Shires is trying to get the county to provide a storage tank and water delivery service. Currently, renters have to fill 5-gallon (19-liter) buckets at a friend’s house and drive water every day. They use water for cooking and bathing. They have portable toilets in the backyard.

“They’re alive,” Shires said. “In Mexico, I’ve been doing it. I’ve been carrying buckets myself from a distance. So we have to somehow survive. This is an emergency.”

Demand for boreholes is growing as water pumps stop working across the San Joaquin Valley.

Ethan Bowles and his colleagues were recently drilling a new well on a farmhouse in the Madeira Ranchos neighborhood, many of which have dried up this year.

“It was almost non-stop phone calls just because the water table was constantly dropping,” said Bowles, who works at Drew and Hefner Well Drilling in Chuchilla. “Most of the residents have owned their wells for many years and suddenly the water stopped flowing.”

His company now has to drill 500 and 600 feet (152 to 183 metres) to get a steady supply of groundwater for customers. This is two hundred feet deeper than the old wells.

“The wells have to go deeper,” Bowles said. “You have to hit a different aquifer and get it a different fraction of the water table so they can actually get fresh water for their home.”

In March, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order To slow the bout of well drilling 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 strive to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed in 2014 to prevent groundwater pumping excessively during the recent drought. The law requires regional agencies to sustainably manage aquifers by 2042.

Water experts believe the law will lead to a more sustainable groundwater supply over the next two decades, but the road ahead will be bumpy. The California Public Policy Institute estimates that about 500,000 acres (202,000 ha) of farmland, about 10% of the current total, should go out of production within the next two decades.

“These communities will be affected by their drinking water supply and job losses,” said Isaiah Kisica, a groundwater expert at the University of California, Davis. “There is a lot of farm worker migration as this land is resting.”

The farmers and residents of the valley are hoping for help from above. “I hope it rains,” Shires said. There is a big need: water. We need water, water and water.”


Follow Terry Chia on Twitter: @terrychea


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