California farms pumping water to make up for drought

Central Valley farmers drilling water

As the California drought continues, Central California farmers are hiring well drillers to seek water underground for their crops after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stopped providing Central Valley farmers with any water from the federally run system of reservoirs and canals fed by mountain runoff.

This is the third-driest year in California in at least 106 years. The drought has led state officials to clamp down on water waste, like open hoses. Fines can hit $500. 

The drought is having its biggest effect on California’s mammoth agriculture industry. A report from UC Davis’s Center for Watershed Sciences pegs losses at $2.2 billion this year. 

“There will be some pockets of deprivation, poverty,” says Josué Medellín-Azuara, a UC Davis researcher who worked on the report.

Four hundred square miles of farmland has been fallowed—mostly lower-value crops like alfalfa. More than 17,000 seasonal farm workers are affected.

“It takes people to provide nutrients for those crops. It takes people to even insure those crops. It takes people to truck those crops to market,” says Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau.  

The drought’s impact could be far worse, though. 

Farmers in the Central Valley have managed to find another source for 75 percent of the water they normally get from state and federal reservoirs. They’re drilling deep into underground aquifers, pumping out enough water to cover 7,800 square miles a foot deep.  

“I’m fortunate enough to have a well for groundwater, but it’s caused our electric rates to probably triple,” says Thomas Ulm, a farmer in Modesto. 

Ulm’s farm is getting only half the reservoir water it’s usually allocated, so he’s relying on his own well to keep his almonds, walnuts and grapes growing. 

His neighbor just drilled a well, too. All this drilling and pumping is unregulated and, “Eventually, of course, you run out of water,” says Robert Glennon, a professor at the University of Arizona, and the author of “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.” 

If the state’s groundwater is like a giant milkshake glass, “what California is allowing is a limitless number of straws in the glass,” he says. “That’s a recipe for disaster. It’s utterly unsustainable.”

Especially when this drought could last another year, or another 50.

 

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