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Drought Drives Drilling Frenzy for Groundwater in California

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Juan de La Cruz operates a drilling rig probing for groundwater 2,500 feet beneath Fresno County. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Steve Arthur practically lives out of his truck these days. But he’s not homeless. He runs one of Fresno’s busiest well drilling companies.

“It’s officially getting crazy. We go and we go but it just seems like we can’t go fast enough,” he says, sitting behind the steering wheel as he hustles up and down Highway 99 to check on drilling rigs that run 24 hours a day, probing for water.

Some days, Arthur doesn’t even have time to stop for gas; he’s got an extra tank hooked up to the flatbed of his pickup. He says he’s lucky if he gets three hours of sleep a night.

“Toward the end of the week, I start to get run down pretty good,” he sighs. “On a Friday afternoon, you might see me parked on the side of the road taking a cat nap.”

Counties in the farm-rich Central Valley are issuing record numbers of permits for new water wells. Arthur says his company’s got an eight-month waiting list. Some of his competitors are backlogged more than a year. Drillers like Arthur say they’re even busier than they were during the drought of 1977, when Californians drilled 28 thousand new wells.

‘It’s officially getting crazy. We go and we go but it just seems like we can’t go fast enough.’— Steve Arthur, Owner, Arthur & Orum Well Drilling

“This is off the scales, here,” says Arthur, shaking his head. “It’s just amazing, the amount of people that call and want wells. A customer called this morning and I’m supposed to do two for him, and he said, ‘Add 14 to the list.’”

You have to literally grab these guys and drag ‘em to your property and say ‘Please, please drill me a well!,’” laments citrus farmer Matt Fisher, who’s been scrambling to keep his trees alive after learning that he won’t get any water from federal reservoirs this year.

“I have even heard of drilling companies that won’t tell growers who’s in front of them, because guys are trying to buy the other guy’s spot in line,” says Fisher. “Its crazy, some of the things that are going on, but if you’re in our shoes, and you have to pay a guy $10,000 for his spot in line, that’s cheap compared to what you’re going to lose if you lose your whole orchard.”

It’s not always about losing trees, though. Right where a brand new almond orchard will be planted in rural Fresno County, a 70-foot high drilling rig bores a hole in the earth 2,500 feet deep. This well will cost the farmer about a million dollars.

Juan de La Cruz works on this rig 12 hours a day, seven days a week, carefully guiding the drill bit. He’s standing in a little hut next to the drill hole that they call ‘the doghouse.’ It’s where workers keep a log of the layers of sand and clay they find, collecting samples every ten feet as the drill probes deeper.

Drillers collect samples from the bore hole for every 10 feet of depth. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Drillers collect samples from the bore hole for every 10 feet of depth — but the records of what they find are considered confidential and not available to the public.  (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

It’s also home to two other essential pieces of gear: a microwave and a fridge.

This is basically where we live while we’re working,” says De La Cruz in Spanish. “We’ve got some nopales (cacti) and zucchinis in here to cook up. The farmers bring us cantaloupes, tomatoes, whatever we want. They are so grateful because when we’re done with this well, these fields will have water.”

Bob Zimmerer’s company, Zim Industries, owns this rig and a dozen others. He knows there’s a silver lining to the drought for well drillers this year. But he knows it can’t last forever.

“We can’t keep sustaining this amount of overdraft, we all know that,” says Zimmerer, standing on the platform next to the drill. “At this point in time, we don’t want to keep going on at this pace. It’s more of a temporary fix.”

That’s a sobering admission from a well driller.

‘Groundwater is like a bank account. You can’t take out more than you put in on an ongoing basis.’— Jerry Cadagan, water activist

California’s aquifers supply 40 percent of the state’s water in normal years but in this drought year, it could be closer to 65 percent. That makes it our biggest water reserve –- bigger than the Sierra snowpack.

Scientists are already sounding alarm bells about pumping too much groundwater. State water managers estimate that water tables in some parts of the Valley have dropped 100 feet below historical lows. As water levels sink, the land can sink, too — in some places by about a foot per year. Groundwater pumping could also put more stress on the San Andreas Fault.

That’s not the only seismic consequence.

“We are a one-way trajectory towards depletion. Toward running out of groundwater in the Central Valley,” warns Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist at UC Irvine. He points out that California is the only western state that doesn’t really monitor or regulate how much groundwater farmers and residents are using.

“If you own property, you can dig a well and you can pump as much groundwater as you a want,” says Famiglietti, “even if that means you are drawing water in from beneath your neighbor’s property into your well. So it’s not unlike having several straws in a glass, and everyone drinking at the same time, and no one really watching the level.”

Drillers are bringing in large rigs like this one from all over the west, to drill deeper wells in the quest for water. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Drillers are bringing in large rigs like this one from all over the west, to drill deeper wells in the quest for water. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

That could change. A bill making its way through the state legislature could, for the first time ever, require local agencies to track, and in some cases, even restrict groundwater pumping. Some farmers oppose it, saying it’s a violation of their property rights.

But retired attorney and water activist Jerry Cadagan says counties should be thinking hard right now about the permits they’re giving to farmers to drill thousands of new wells.

“You’ve got to put reasonable restrictions so people are only pumping out a reasonable amount of water that underlies their land,” says Cadagan, who lives in Stanislaus County, and is suing farmers there for drilling wells without considering the environmental impact. “Groundwater is like a bank account. You can’t take out more than you put in on an ongoing basis.”

Farmers too, are starting to worry. In Merced County, farm leaders are trying to stop two private landowners from selling as much as 7 billion gallons of well water to farmers in another county. They call it “groundwater mining.”

 

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About the Author ()

Sasha Khokha is Central Valley Bureau Chief for KQED’s  statewide public radio program, The California Report. Based in Fresno, she covers a vast geographic beat, including the nation’s most productive farm belt, some of California’s poorest towns, and Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. Whether trekking up a Sierra glacier with her microphone, interviewing farmworkers in Spanish, or explaining complicated air or water quality issues, Sasha translates rural California to the rest of the state. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and the mother of two young children.
  • DiscusBS

    Allowing unfettered agriculture is a recipe for disaster. This story proves time and time again that agriculture in general is willing to shoot itself in the foot, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, etc. Environmental wackos worry about Fracking while all of the usable water is being extracted by agriculture. There is a limit as to how much agriculture, especially permanent crops that this state can support. We have already reached and exceeded that level. Agriculture needs to move towards sustainable levels. The State’s Regional Water Boards need to start enforcing anti-degradation and fining the large agriculture polluters and profit mongers for the damage that they have caused. Over 90% of all contamination is caused by agriculture and Ag consumes over 80% of all of California’s water. The citizenry of California is forced to subsidize and generally receives no cost benefit for its agricultural products. California cannot afford to subsidize BigAg!

    • jefftkac

      DiscusBS,
      I would write , call , pony express , Jerry Brown and tell him to quit flowing water out to the ocean. It is that simple. By the way, with global warming and the sea rising…..isnt it Mr.Brown contributing to this form of environmental terrorism?

      • samrivers

        Jeffkac — are you aware that the water flowing out to the ocean serves two rather important purposes — 1. acts as a buffer preventing salt water from getting so far into the Delta that it ruins Delta farming and also makes all that Delta water going down to our cousins in Los Angeles undrinkable; 2. sustains a critically important fishery, including salmon, that need fresh water flowing through the Delta?

        If you can tell us how to deal with those issues I’m sure we’d all suggest to Jerry Brown that he “quit flowing water out to the ocean”.

        • jefftkac

          samrivers- You bring up an important point that I forgot. We also need desalinization plants to remove the salts so that we prevent salt water from getting so far into the Delta that it ruins Delta farming and so on. This idea would then support our fish too. Sadly we have sold most of our desalinization equipment to the Middle East. I would much rather desalinate than run a high speed rail through the center of California. Lastly, there are estimates of 300,000 people being unemployed due to the water not flowing. Think of those tax revenues and an overburdened welfare system. So, lets save the non native species of fish too. So now where is that suggestion box (and my billion dollar lobby group)

          • CSVulcan

            jeffkac – this is not how current desalination technology works. The salt is not recovered and the resulting brine goes back into the ocean, adding to salinity. As samrivers mentioned, the freshwater outflow creates the barrier. You can’t reduce ocean inflow with desalination.

          • jefftkac

            Tit for Tat….Let’s just desalinize and pull it out of the ocean somewhere, and at the very least, send it to the closest communities to the ocean first as the pipelines and infrastructure mostly exist already. Then as we work our way east begin to divert the water way from said cities until we are able to truly utilize Gods gifts. I seem to be the only coming up with ideas….but then again everyone’s a critic…. lastly , and I haven’t done the research but are we sending any excess out to the ocean as it appears that we are? Maybe divert a quarter of what we are sending out to the ocean and SELL it to the Farmers. Is anyone going to address the problem of the radical unemployment and subsequent welfare problem?

          • samrivers

            jsfftkac — you are at least honest in saying that you haven’t done the research. Please do so and you’ll find that we are sending too little water all the way through the estuary from an ecological or biological perspective. See — http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/bay_delta/deltaflow/docs/final_rpt080310.pdf

            Rather then selling more scarce fresh water to farmers we should take a fraction of what Jerry Brown’s Tunnels would cost and use it to purchase thousands of acres of marginal southern San Joaquin Valley farmland. That would free up lots of water that is badly needed by the environment and a constantly growing population

    • Bright Heathen

      All of what you say about Ag is true, BUT what we really don’t need is fracking on top of everything else and that is EXACTLY what our future is looking like. California is looking at a pretty dismal future and not one soul in Sacramento is understanding or making moves towards doing anything that could be genuinely beneficial in any way whatsoever. They are scrambling to maintain the status quo and they cannot get it through their heads that that is now completely out of the question. The next 5 years is going to show them.

    • Captivation

      Sounds like you need some environmentalists, but wait… you just called them wackos… Good luck in organizing your movement.

    • CSVulcan

      Agreed, although it makes no sense to condemn excessive water use in one area and call those who condemn it in another “environmental wackos.” Water depletion and pollution should be addressed in as many areas as possible. Conservation remains by far the most cost effective management strategy.

      • DiscusBS

        The issue is deep, no pun intended. Informed and effective environmentalists would indeed be welcomed but they do not seem interested in the devastation that the extreme approach to agriculture in California has caused. Those that simply pick a cause based upon some TV show or some inaccurate claims bring nothing to the table for discussion. While it is true that some of the brackish water some of fracking operations use can be treated and used for agriculture the cost is something close to $500 an acre foot. Only one water district is currently treats the ag contaminated water for reuse. The issue requires some time for consideration and critical thinking. Any solution will require agriculture to step back from their water demands, requiring lesser acreage of permanent crops, so that the environment can be protected. The potential impacts of fracking is minimal in comparison.

  • Kapundaboy

    As far as I am aware here In Australia, we have our Bores metered, so responsible allocations are taken. Ground water takes eons of time to get there. It is just a nonsense to go about drilling merrily today, with out realizing the full consequences of taking it all today and leaving none there for tomorrow. When it’s gone what do you do. Worse still, with all the fracking that’s going on in the US, you may contaminate huge reservoirs of fresh water, put that into the equation and you will see big time problems. Desalination of sea water has to be the only long term solution, as Climate Change takes hold. Becoming much more efficient with water usage will have to be the start, as the ground water will only have a very limited life if this report is correct. The cost of piping Desalinated water to these areas will be the big cost, but what cost do you put on life giving fresh water and fresh food.

    • DiscusBS

      Lobbyists for agriculture and the well drilling associations have kept California from joining the rest of US with responsible groundwater protection. As a result it really is the Wild West out here with wells substituted for six-guns.

  • Jim Borchers

    Just a point of accuracy. The sentence, ‘As water levels sink, the land can sink, too — in some places by about 100 feet per year.’, is erroneous– probably a typo. Historical maximum rates of subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley are a little over 1 foot per year. Maximum historical subsidence is about 30 feet– southwest of Mendota on Panoche Road, one mile east from the California Aqueduct. Current annual rates of subsidence approach the maximum historical rates and occur within in 2 subsiding regions: 1) a 1200 square mile area where highway 152 crosses the San Joaquin River, and 2) a much larger area where highway 98 crosses the Tulare basin further south in the San Joaquin Valley. For a map showing these and other subsiding areas check out the two reports on subsidence in California that resulted from pumping groundwater that are available on the California Water Foundation website:

    http://www.californiawaterfoundation.org/

    Jim Borchers
    Consulting Hydrogeologist
    Davis, Ca