Drought drives drilling frenzy for groundwater in California

Water: Our Resource at Risk

July 14, 2014

By: KQED's Sasha Khokha

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

The drought in California may be thousands of miles away, but it’s having a direct effect on the rest of the country, including the Great Lakes region.

As part of our Front & Center series, we’ll be reporting on that all week. But first we take you back to California, which grows nearly 50 percent of the nation’s produce.

The situation for farmers and ranchers has become so dire there’s a potentially dangerous drilling boom going on. Not for oil or gas. For water.

Related: What water issues in California mean for the Midwest

Coming soon: We’ve invited fiction writers to peer into the future—100 years or more—and imagine the region around the Great Lakes, when water scarcity is a dominant social issue. It’s a cosmic blend of art and science.

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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.

Related: Will California drought prompt a stronger Midwest food system?

“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.

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.

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.”

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.”