This third year of extreme drought is taking a devastating toll on agriculture in California. We see pictures of orchards being removed, dry canals and fields that should be a verdant green now a sunburned brown. The impacts on the farm are easy to see. The effects on our communities and on the wildlife that depend on agricultural lands in production are no less real, even if they are harder to observe.
For the past 20 years, two small satellites orbiting 250 miles above Earth have tracked a stark reality about the nation’s groundwater supplies, including across the parched Colorado River Basin: The water underground is vanishing. The NASA satellites began gathering data in 2002. Since then, Colorado River Basin groundwater has depleted much faster than water storage in the nation’s two largest reservoirs, according to research that underscores concerns about the increasingly tight water supply in the drought-stricken West.
California farms grow about a quarter of U.S. food, and that takes a lot of water. Many farmers rely on water pumped from the ground. But over time, pumping is depleting the aquifers. And severe droughts are making the problem worse.
“Eventually, you’re going to run out of water,” says Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch in California’s Central Valley.
To help protect the ranch, he’s been working for years to replenish groundwater supplies.
More than 60% of California’s groundwater wells are operating at below-normal levels, endangering much of the Golden State’s population that relies on the precious resource.
Although relatively unknown to many Californians, who see water supply in terms of rivers, streams and reservoirs, groundwater is a hugely vital source that is largely invisible.
The fire chief noticed it when he tested hydrants in August — a rare occurrence as Coalinga desperately seeks to conserve water — and the first one shot out a foot-long block of compacted dirt. The second one ejected a can of Axe body spray.
In a move that activists hope could shift how water regulators statewide manage dwindling groundwater basins, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this week banned the drilling of all new wells for six months countywide while they draft a set of longer-lasting rules on using groundwater.
As California’s drought deepens, Elaine Moore’s family is running out of an increasingly precious resource: water.
The Central Valley almond growers had two wells go dry this summer. Two of her adult children are now getting water from a new well the family drilled after the old one went dry last year. She’s even supplying water to a neighbor whose well dried up.
“It’s been so dry this last year. We didn’t get much rain. We didn’t get much snowpack,” Moore said, standing next to a dry well on her property in Chowchilla, California. “Everybody’s very careful with what water they’re using. In fact, my granddaughter is emptying the kids’ little pool to flush the toilets.”
In a fast-paced trip through the evolution of California’s water rights, attorney Valerie Kincaid explained how the system has gone from the “wild, wild west” to one pervaded by ever greater government creep.
By expanding its authorities under what had been thought of as several limited court decisions, state government is now essentially dictating operations on several watersheds, has ignored priority rights and is on the verge of amassing even more control under the guise of “modernization,” Kincaid told a packed room during a Water Association of Kern County luncheon on Tuesday the Water Board.
Most Californians are feeling the effects of the drought. But in areas of the state where people rely on groundwater, such as the San Joaquin Valley, the pain of this drought is especially severe. Wells are going dry and there’s intense competition to find and pull more water from underground.
A new video illustrating the role and the value of groundwater has been released by the Vallecitos Water District.
“The Value of Water: Groundwater” was produced for World Water Week 2022 through a collaboration with the Vallecitos Water District, the California Department of Water Resources, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency WaterSense.