California Drought: San Joaquin Valley Sinking As Farmers Race To Tap Aquifer



California Drought: San Joaquin Valley sinking as farmers race to tap aquifer

"PIXLEY – So wet was the San Joaquin Valley of Steve Arthur's childhood that a single 240-foot-deep well could quench the thirst of an arid farm.

Now his massive rig, bucking and belching, must drill 1,200 feet deep in search of ever-more-elusive water to sustain this wheat farm north of Bakersfield. As he drills, his phone rings with three new appeals for help.

"Everybody is starting to panic," said Arthur, whose Fresno-based well-drilling company just bought its ninth rig, off the Wyoming oil fields. "Without water, this valley can't survive."

When water doesn't fall from the sky or flow from reservoirs, there's only one place to find it: underground. So, three years into a devastating drought, thirsty Californians are draining the precious aquifer beneath the nation's most productive farmland like never before, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a perverse race to the bottom.

The rush to drill is driven not just by historically dry conditions, but by a host of other factors that promote short-term consumption over long-term survival -- new, more moisture-demanding crops; improved drilling technologies; and a surge of corporate investors seeking profits for agricultural ventures.

Now those forces are renewing an age-old problem of environmental degradation: Decades ago, overpumping sunk half of the entire San Joaquin Valley, in one area as much as 28 feet. Today new areas are subsiding, some almost a foot each year, damaging bridges and vital canals.

Yet in California, one of the few states that doesn't regulate how much water can be pumped from underground, even this hasn't been enough to create a consensus to stop.

"It's our savings account, and we're draining it," said Phil Isenberg of the Public Policy Institute of California, a former Sacramento mayor and assemblyman. "At some point, there will be none left."

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"The trends are alarming, the politics complex, but the science is rather simple: The Central Valley -- from Redding to Bakersfield -- is consuming twice as much groundwater as nature is returning through rain and snow.

The rate of water loss over the past two years is the largest since the University of California started using NASA satellites to measure underground water reserves in 2003. The Central Valley's reserves are shrinking by 800 billion gallons a year -- enough to supply every resident of California with water for seven months, according to Jay Famiglietti, director of the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling.

"We may only be a few decades away from hitting bottom," said Famiglietti, considered one of the leading experts on state water policy.

However, little is being done to control it. States such as Kansas and even Texas prevent unlimited pumping of groundwater. But California has failed to regulate how much groundwater is pumped, leaving it up to the courts to settle disputes over excessive use, according to Barton H. "Buzz" Thompson Jr., professor of natural resources law at Stanford University.

Overpumping not only lowers the water table and collapses land at the surface, but it also lowers water quality and requires more power to pump. River flows are lower, and shallow wells are exhausted.

Farmers have long relied on the government's engineering marvel of aqueducts to bring surface water from giant reservoirs in the north to the south. However, the federally run Central Valley Project allotted farmers only 20 percent of their share last year -- and none this year. Officials who manage the State Water Project, California's other major water system, have also said that they will not be releasing any water for farmers, a first in the system's 54-year history.

So with the drought cutting off their deliveries, farmers say they must rely on the only source left. Those who can afford the $200,000 to $600,000 price tag are digging deeper and deeper to tap into a once-unreachable aquifer. Many are taking out loans, betting on crop yields to break even.

"I've got some of the best land in the nation -- 50 feet of topsoil -- that is sitting vacant if I can't get water," said Thomas Kaljian, of Los Banos, who owns almond orchards on the San Joaquin Valley's west side. "This is the breadbasket of the nation, and we're strangling it."

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"It's our savings account, and we're draining it," said Phil Isenberg of the Public Policy Institute of California, a former Sacramento mayor and assemblyman. "At some point, there will be none left."

And some dare say this is not a manmade crisis? Greed, selfishness, consumption will be the undoing of California. Can you even imagine a Silicon Valley company "agricultural" venture to open up an ALMOND farm? Do you really feel sorry for greedy opportunists like this who now think they should get first dibs on water with this mindset? : Rain...gone. Surface water...gone. Aquifers...going...but let's just keep overpumping to maintain OUR lifestyle without giving a damn for anyone else and to hell with climate change or any other considerations, you know, like the future.

How about people try to do without almonds now in exchange for perhaps saving some water for our children to drink? For fish to live in? How about growing something not so water intensive? How about smart irrigation and having the moral will to just take your share? Talk about the need for a paradigm shift in perception.

It is coming to a full head here. When you drill for water, you take ALL OF IT, not just the water directly under your land! The deeper you go the worse it gets for everyone...and then...it all sinks. This is also a primer for a world in climate change induced drought. Take a good look and hope that when the end of the water is near we don't start hearing gunshots...but then of course, Agent Orange DOW Chemical (that is big into reverse osmosis and probably applauding this) can come to the rescue and make the population pay through the nose for some desalinated Pacific Ocean water that hopefully hasn't then been irradiated or FRACKED. Tell me again how we humans have "evolved."

Also see:

Devastating Drought Continues To Plague California

California Drought: 17 Communities Could Run Out of Water Within 60 To 120 days/Updates

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