Ethan Miller/Getty Images

What should California do about its drought?

As California suffers a historic drought, residents measure the damage and consider possible solutions

Since the beginning of 2013, close to 63 trillion gallons of groundwater has been lost in Western states because of drought. According to researchers from the University of California at San Diego and the U.S. Geological Survey, this tremendous loss has lifted the earth’s crust by an average of about one-sixth of an inch in the last 18 months.

"The effect we're looking at is that if you take weight off a spring, the spring goes up," said Duncan Agnew of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

How much water is 63 trillion gallons? Enough to cover the United States west of the Rockies with four inches of water.

The severe drought in California is now in its third year. And the implications are serious for a state that produces half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S. The University of California at Davis estimates that the total economic loss from this year’s drought has reached $2.2 billion dollars. More than 17,000 seasonal and part-time jobs have been cut. And nearly half a million acres — 5 percent of irrigated cropland — is going out of production in three key agricultural regions of the state.

It has become a ritual now for farmers to hunt for water from reservoirs and wells. But this year’s drought is different from before. Some of those traditional backup water supplies are drying up. Local drilling companies are saying they are booked for months, digging deeper into the earth for water.

"This is the most repairs we've done in one season since I've been in business, in 37 years,” said Robert Nix, a well driller. "It is a seven-day-a-week operation. We can't slow down and stop."

Before, farm wells went down only a few hundred feet. Now the drought is forcing drillers to reach farther, past a layer of clay, to the deep aquifer. Big agribusinesses drink up about 85 percent of California’s surface water. That is in addition to the groundwater they use. That is because some crops can be thirstier than one would think — for example, almonds. More than 7 percent of the state’s surface water goes to growing almonds. That is enough water to supply the daily needs of three-quarters of California's population.

"We're seeing less crops and fruits and vegetables being grown in California that we would traditionally see," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "That's going impact and affect supplies. It's going to require more imports and could lead to increased cost for consumers."

The latest technique of deep aquifer drilling does not come without consequences. In some parts of the state, the land is sinking. However, farmers say they are left with few other options.

"I would love for the operation to continue," said Jay Mahil of Creekside Farming Co. "You know, we’ve built it up from where my dad, my grandfather, my great-grandfather had built it to, and I hope my son and my grandson can build it to a higher level than where we’re at."

A law to regulate water for the first time is being debated in California's state legislature because 60 percent of the water used in the state now comes from groundwater. That is 20 percent higher than in a normal year.

What if drought is the new normal?

Should California worry about draining aquifers dry? 

We asked a panel of experts on this edition of "Inside Story."

Related News

Drought USA, Water

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Drought USA, Water

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter