California Wells Run Dry as Drought Depletes 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.”

Amid a megadrought plaguing the American West, more rural communities are losing access to groundwater as heavy pumping depletes underground aquifers that aren’t being replenished by rain and snow.

More than 1,200 wells have run dry this year statewide, a nearly 50% increase over 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 most severe in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland, which exports fruits, vegetables and nuts around the world.

Shrinking groundwater supplies reflect the severity of California’s drought, which is now entering its fourth year. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 94% of the state is in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

California just experienced its three driest years on record, and state water officials said Monday they’re preparing for another dry year because the weather phenomenon known as La Nina is expected to occur for the third consecutive year.

Farmers are getting little surface water from the state’s depleted reservoirs, so they’re pumping more groundwater to irrigate their crops. That’s causing water tables to drop across California. State data shows that 64% of wells are at below-normal water levels.

Water shortages are already reducing the region’s agricultural production as farmers are forced to fallow fields and let orchards wither. An estimated 531,00 acres (215,000 hectares) of farmland went unplanted this year because of a lack of irrigation water, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As climate change brings hotter temperatures and more severe droughts, cities and states around the world are facing water shortages as lakes and rivers dry up. Many communities are pumping more groundwater and depleting aquifers at an alarming pace.

“This is a key challenge not just for California, but for communities across the West moving forward in adapting to climate change,” said Andrew Ayres, a water researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California.

In Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, supervisors on Tuesday approved a six-month moratorium on drilling of new groundwater wells. It follows a lawsuit alleging the county wasn’t appropriately managing groundwater.

Madera County, north of Fresno, has been hit particularly hard 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 that are typically irrigated by agricultural wells that run deeper than domestic wells.

“The bigger straw is going to suck the water from right beneath the little straw,” said Madeline Harris, a policy manager with the advocacy group Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability. She stood next to a municipal well that’s run dry in Fairmead, a town of 1,200 surrounded by nut orchards.

“Municipal wells like this one are being put at risk and are going dry because of the groundwater overdraft problems 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 regularly filled by water delivery trucks. The state also provides money to replace dry wells, but there’s a long wait to get a new one.

Not everyone is getting assistance.

Thomas Chairez said his Fairmead property, which he rents to a family of eight, used to get water from his neighbor’s well. But when it went dry two years ago, his 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 up 5-gallon (19-liter) buckets at a friend’s home and transport water by car each day. They use the water to cook and take showers. They have portable toilets in the backyard.

“They’re surviving,” Chairez said. “In Mexico, I used to do that. I used to carry two buckets myself from far away. So we got to survive somehow. This is an emergency.”

Well drillers are in high demand as water pumps stop working across the San Joaquin Valley.

Ethan Bowles and his colleagues were recently drilling a new well at a ranch house in the Madera Ranchos neighborhood, where many wells have gone dry this year.

“It’s been almost nonstop phone calls just due to the water table dropping constantly,” 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 must now drill down 500 and 600 feet (152 to 183 meters) to get clients a steady supply of groundwater. That’s a couple hundred feet deeper than older wells.

“The wells just have to go deeper,” Bowles said. “You have to hit a different aquifer and get them a different part of that water table so they can actually have fresh water for their house.”

In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to slow a frenzy of well-drilling over the past few years. The temporary measure prohibits local agencies from issuing permits for new wells that could harm nearby wells or structures.

California’s groundwater troubles come as local agencies seek to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2014 to prevent groundwater overpumping during the last drought. The law requires regional agencies to manage their aquifers sustainably by 2042.

Water experts believe the law will lead to more sustainable groundwater supplies over the next two decades, but the road will be bumpy. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that about 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of agricultural land, about 10% of the current total, will have to come out of production over the next two decades.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Am I A Water hog? Here’s What Could Land You on California’s List of Homes Using Too Much Water

With California’s water supply shrinking and the drought dragging on, Bay Area water agencies are getting serious about persuading their customers to use water responsibly.

At least one, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, on Tuesday started releasing the names of those guilty of what it considers “excessive use” of water. Three homes made the initial list but it’s expected to grow to hundreds by the end of October.

So how does someone wind up on this list?

Leaks

According to Andrea Pook, a spokesperson for EBMUD, the circumstances that land most people on the list are leaks and outdoor water use, primarily for landscaping.

Leaks — ranging from drippy faucets to corroded pipes to seeping irrigation systems — exist in about one out of every four of the residences in the district’s service area. Leaks can go unnoticed, particularly if they’re underground or in an area that’s not seen regularly.

“It can be obvious, but it can also be a pain to discover these,” Pook said.

Landscaping is also a major cause of excess water use, she said, particularly during the summer when people are trying to keep their lawns green and their plants from turning to twigs.

People should avoid watering their lawns and plants more than three times a week, Pook said, and should check their irrigation systems to make sure they’re not leaking, that streams from sprinklers are reaching vegetation and not pavement and that automatic programs are set efficiently so they’re not watering too often or too long.

Landscaping is responsible for about two-thirds of wasted water, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

How to stay off the list

How can people best conserve water and stay off the excessive use list? Here’s some advice from experts:

• Check for — and repair — leaks.

• Monitor your water use so you’ll notice if there’s an unexpected spike in use. EBMUD offers rebates on flow meters, devices that can be connected to your water meter and display real-time water use. The district also answers questions during office hours, will conduct audits of your water use and send representatives to your house to look for problems and solutions.

“We find that most people underestimate their use of water,” Pook said.

• Inspect your irrigation system. Turn it on and see if you’re watering the sidewalk instead of the plants. Check the programming to see if it’s set to water efficiently for the weather and the season.

The state Department of Water Resources offers similar advice, but also suggests:

• Get rid of your lawn , or reduce its size, and replace it with drought resistant plants or landscaping that requires little or no water. Grass uses twice as much water as other yard plants, the department says.

• Replace irrigation systems that use sprinklers with drip irrigation systems.

• Change some household practices and equipment: installing high-efficiency toilets, recycling indoor water — from showers and bathtubs, washing machines and sinks for use in the garden, turning off water when brushing teeth or shaving and running only full loads in washing machines and dishwashers.

Still worried about making the list? EBMUD’s policy allows a relatively generous amount of water to be used before a penalty is applied and a warning is issued — an average of about 1,646 gallons per day over the 60-day billing cycle. Average daily use in the district is 200 to 300 gallons per day, Pook said.

According to data released this week in response to a public records request, about 2,250 households received warnings for going over the limit during their early-summer billing period while at least three continued to exceed the threshold for a second period.

Names of violators are made public only after a warning is sent out and a 15-day appeal period has lapsed. The list of offenders released Tuesday reflects just three days of bills being sent out over the continuous two-month billing cycles — the days in which the appeal deadline has passed. The district said it won’t provide another list until late October.

As the drought worsens, and if Northern California has another dry winter, Pook said, the water allotments will shrink.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

6 Million Southern Californians Face Unprecedented Order to Conserve Water

Unprecedented water restrictions are in store for about 6 million Southern Californians, a sign of deepening drought in counties that depend on water piped from the state’s parched reservoirs. 

The Metropolitan Water District’s board voted unanimously today to require six major water providers and the dozens of cities and local districts they supply to impose one of two options: limit residents to outdoor watering once a week or reduce total water use below a certain target.

The water providers must have plans to police their customers, and if they fail to impose the restrictions, they could face fines of $2,000 for every extra acre-foot of water that exceeds their monthly allocation limits, starting in June, according to Metropolitan.

The restrictions target parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties that rely heavily on water from drought-stricken Northern California rivers transported south via the State Water Project.

“At this time, a third of our region, 6 million Southern Californians in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino counties, face a very real and immediate water stress challenge,” said Metropolitan Water District General Manager Adel Hagekhalil. “Today these areas rely on extremely limited supplies from Northern California. And there is not enough supply available to meet the normal demands in these areas.”

Cutting back outdoor watering to one day a week would be a big change for the arid, densely populated areas, where many people irrigate their lawns and gardens. 

Southern Californians have heard for decades about the dangers of drought, but per-person residential water use has increased in the past two years, despite the severe drought. Experts say conservation wavers in the region because restrictions are largely voluntary — and their water never seems to run out

“This is insane but not unexpected,” Peter Kraut, a council member from the San Fernando Valley city of Calabasas told the Metropolitan board, which is composed of 38 city and local district officials. “I’m appalled that a change this drastic is happening in such a short period of time.”

“This plan will result not just in brown grass but in killing countless trees. The damage to our environment will take decades to repair,” Kraut added.

Today’s mandate is the first outdoor watering restriction imposed by the giant water-import agency, which supplies 19 million people in California. More stringent restrictions may come later, Metropolitan officials warned: The water providers must also prepare to ban all outdoor watering as early as September, if necessary, as California suffers one of its driest periods on record.

The six affected water suppliers are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District and Three Valleys Municipal Water District — all in Los Angeles County — and the Calleguas Municipal Water District in Ventura County and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in San Bernardino County.

About 13 million other Southern Californians are unaffected by the order because they aren’t as dependent on water imported via the State Water Project. They receive imports from the Colorado River, which largely are sent to Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties.

Metropolitan has been working to increase the number of customers who can receive Colorado River water to reduce reliance on the hard-pressed state aqueduct. The Colorado River, however, also is facing extreme drought, and deliveries to California, Nevada and Arizona are being cut back under an agreement signed by the states in December.

How much each agency must curtail customers’ water use under Metropolitan’s order depends on how much each relies on the state aqueduct compared to other sources, such as  groundwater or recycled sewage.

Water agencies are still figuring out the details. Some local water providers urged the board at today’s meeting to let them continue watering sports fields and parks more frequently so the turf doesn’t dry out.

Two of the six depend almost entirely on state aqueduct supplies — the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which serves 75,000 residents west of Los Angeles, and the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which supplies 19 agencies and cities in southeast Ventura County. 

Some communities served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District have other sources that may buffer the blow of the new mandate. Los Angeles DWP spokesperson Ellen Cheng did not respond to multiple inquiries about which parts of the city will be affected. 

Some of the affected agencies, such as Las Virgenes in Calabasas and nearby western Los Angeles County cities, already have cracked down on residents by imposing new escalating rates and penalties, with mixed success. Others, including Los Angeles DWP, which has limited outdoor watering to three days a week since 2009, have not added any new restrictions during the current drought.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters

More Misdirection On Our Plan For California Water


DroughtLet’s just get right to it. Appearing in yesterday’s Sacramento Bee, is an editorial titled, “GOP should drop effort to gut Endangered Species Act.” And like past editorials on this topic, the misrepresentation is as blatant as the Kern River is dry — and both are damaging for our state.

This “effort” the editorial board refers to is just the latest in numerous efforts from the House to get the Senate to act on California water. When Republicans regained the majority in the House, we passed legislation each Congress to address California’s water crisis. Last year my House colleagues and I spent hundreds of hours negotiating with Democrats, only to have our Senators fail to show the leadership and courage our state needs to say “yes” to commonsense reforms. So whether or not the Sacramento Bee sees Senator Feinstein’s latest proposal as “thoughtful,” it does little to move us closer to a resolution.

We cannot mistake motion for action. My colleagues and I are ready to go to conference to find a solution — Californians have made it pretty clear they want action. Using the appropriations process is our best course of action.

Moreover, defenders of the status quo continue to push the inaccurate claim that our effort will “gut” the Endangered Species Act. In reality, our language calls for the Bureau of Reclamation (the Federal agency that operates the pumps) to pump at the maximum rate within the biological opinion parameters (-5,000 cfs at Old and Middle River). Here’s the language in our legislation:

“The Secretary of the Interior shall … manage export pumping rates to achieve a reverse OMR flow rate of -5,000 cubic feet per second unless existing information or that developed by the Secretary of the Interior under paragraphs (3) and (4) leads the Secretary to reasonably conclude, using the best scientific and commercial data available, that a less negative OMR flow rate is necessary to avoid a significant negative impact on the long-term survival of the species covered by the smelt biological opinion or salmonid biological opinion.”

Another provision of our proposal allows Reclamation to pump at higher rates to capture El Nino-related storm water provided there are no adverse impacts to protected fish, again using the best science.

This language includes something that I would think all Californians would champion: the best scientific and commercial data available. Instead, the defenders of the status quo point to doomsday scenarios of ecosystem destruction.

mccarthy_2016 export constraints

Just a month ago the Delta outflow was over 100,000 cubic feet per second while regulatory policies limited our ability to pump only -5,000 cubic feet per second. The irreversible damage done? Three adult Delta smelt have been killed and no larval/juvenile smelt have been killed this year. With all the protections for fish in our language, one must wonder if the editorial board simply chooses to hide behind the Endangered Species Act, rather than forcefully defend why it makes sense to continue to arbitrarily cut off water to their fellow Californians who live and work in the two-thirds of our state that is south of Sacramento.

Communities, like in East Porterville, continue to have NO water. It should be commonsense to put the well-being of families ahead of perceived threats to fish. More pumping is something that Senator Feinstein has acknowledged is needed. Instead of mistaking this legislation as a “potshot,” it should instead be highlighted that this is a hopeful development that the House and Senate can reach agreement on California water.

Make no mistake, my House colleagues and I remain unflinching in our resolve to fix this issue for our state, communities, and constituents. We will continue to use every legislative opportunity available to do so.

Originally published by foxandhoundsdaily.com

Drought: Californians must demand better for the state


agriculture“Science,” wrote the University of California’s first President Daniel Coit Gilman, “is the mother of California.” In making this assertion, Gilman was referring mostly to finding ways to overcoming the state’s “peculiar geographical position” so that the state could develop its “undeveloped resources.”

Nowhere was this more true than in the case of water. Except for the far north and the Sierra, California – and that includes San Francisco as well as greater Los Angeles – is essentially a semiarid desert. The soil and the climate might be ideal, but without water, California is just a lot of sunny potential, but not much economic value.

Yet, previous generations of Californians, following Gilman’s instructions, used technology to build new waterworks, from the Hetch Hetchy Dam to the L.A. Aqueduct and, finally, the California State Water Project and its federal counterpart, the Central Valley Project. These turned California into the richest farming area on the planet and generated opportunities for the tens of millions who came to live in the state’s cities and suburbs.

Today, California operates on very different assumptions. If growth was valued under the regimes that existed in the 100 years after Gilman, it began to lose its allure in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of this was understandable; much of the state had developed haphazardly, and, particularly in the urban areas, not enough open space was left behind. The greens thrived most here because so many had witnessed the dramatic transformation of so much of the state.

The central figures in this transformation are the Browns. The father Pat was a builder by proclivity, and he made sure Californians not only had lots of water, but excellent roads and a great education system from grade schools and community colleges to the University of California. Brown epitomized California’s opportunity era, with its many excesses but also remarkable social mobility, less poverty and more equality than what we see today.

Jerry Brown, his son, was much the opposite. As his adviser Tom Quinn explained to me 30 years ago, Brown’s politics were informed by an abhorrence of what he called his father’s “build, build, build thing.” Brown Jr., he added, was not just rejecting his father, but a long line of Democrats – from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey – who saw the party’s mission as creating wealth and opportunity for their middle- and working-class constituents.

Brown’s approach, in contrast, has been to embrace the notion of “an era of limits,” sometimes for good cause: On nonproductive, runaway government spending, for example. But the lack of investment in infrastructure – as opposed to social services, pensions and salaries – caused disastrous results, of which the current severity of the drought is just one example.

Part of this is world-view. Although generally scientists reject the claim that the drought stems from climate change, Brown and his amen crew, such as at the New York Times, swear that it’s a big part of the story.

This narrative helps explain why the state, under increasingly strong environmentalist influence, has chosen to refrain from taking steps to mitigate the drought. If it’s part of a general revolt of “gaia,” after all, why bother? Better to don a hair shirt and shrink the consuming base than prepare to meet future demands.

Brown’s distaste for adding storage space – a sentiment shared by his core green backers – goes back to his first two terms. Recently, he seems to have wised up on the need to deal with water infrastructure, but he has been careful not to offend his green allies. He has not called for an end to the unconscionable mass diversion of water to San Francisco Bay to restore ancient salmon runs and to save the Delta smelt. This inaction has helped make the current drought – which recalls at least two others I have experienced over the past 40 years – far worse than it need be.

But Brown’s water policies are only part of broader systemic problem in the political economy. The state’s politics are now dominated by a coalition of environmentalists, wealthy coastal residents and public employees who have little interest in broad-based growth, particularly in the state’s interior. This is reflected not just in water polices, but in such areas as basic transportation infrastructure. During the recession, for example, California cut transportation spending far more than states like Texas. A recent study from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and a nonprofit group found that California was home to eight of the 20 urban areas with the worst roads in the nation.

Brown’s disdain for infrastructure spending has survived the bad times and continues with the current budget. Similar trends are seen across the state, including even in opposition to building capacity at the ports – leading to a gradual erosion of our dominant market share to competitors, particularly in the Southeast. Some cities invest in expensive rail development but fail to keep up with the more cost-efficient bus service.

Similarly, a commitment to Draconian “renewable energy” goals has helped line the pockets of Silicon Valley investors and utilities at the expense of manufacturers, Main Street businesses and households. And when it comes to new housing, the green regime has created conditions that make the purchase or rental of housing outrageously expensive.

In the process, California has gone from the 25th-worst state in terms of inequality in 1970 to fourth-worst in 2013. Sure, Silicon Valley companies, flush with investment cash desperate for returns, do well, as does high-end real estate. But the historic constituents of the Democrats – minorities, the poor, the working class – have gotten only crumbs, effectively sold out by their own clueless, and often corrupt, political class.

So in the Oedipal conflict between the Browns, it’s not hard to see whose legacy we should seek to emulate. Pat Brown left behind roads, schools and, most critically, a water system, all of which we still depend on. Jerry Brown has promoted his reputation as a climate crusader and architect of the collapse of the Republican Party. His legacy is tied to his high-speed choo-choo, even though many not profiting from the gravy train don’t think it’s a good idea. Indeed, many progressives, such as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drumm, consider the whole thing “ridiculous,” a massive boondoggle.

But unlike some of my conservative friends, I don’t think all the blame belongs to Brown and his Democratic allies. California business did not push hard for new state investment when GOP governors ran the state. In some cases, Republicans also turned against their own traditional support of infrastructure building, embracing an infantile notion that low taxes alone would solve all problems.

California’s mess has many progenitors outside the green machine. Big agriculture, which consumes upward of 80 percent of our water, has not exactly covered itself with glory, resisting ground water controls as they unconscionably pump critically depleted state aquifers to historically low levels. And some growers insist on planting crops like rice, alfalfa and cotton that are more suited to the wet southeast than arid California. Some cities did not meter their own water uses, encouraging waste even as the drought mounted.

So what do we do now? How about not using state law to say “no” to everything and start saying “yes” to the things most Californians need. The Right needs to get beyond its 1978 Howard Jarvis moment. The greens should clamber down from their mountaintop and start embracing a combination of solutions that includes not only conservation but more reservoirs and more desalination. Business has to accept fewer subsidies and a more intelligent selection of crops to adjust to the new reality. The public needs to accept that our houses need to have landscaping that looks more like Tucson than England.

But it’s more than just water. We also need to start saying yes to those things – natural gas electrical generation, new housing, better roads and buses – that actually would improve the lives of Californians. Caught between the clueless Republicans and the ecotopian fantasies of the Left, Californians need to reject both, and demand something better for this state.

Cross-posted at New Geography and Fox and Hounds Daily

Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University