In dry California, water goes to those who drill the deepest

In one of the most regulated states in the nation, no laws apply to groundwater pumping, which means some people go dry

DUCOR, Calif. – The only sign of life sprouting out of a vast expanse of land in this unincorporated corner of Tulare County is a large drilling rig and two trucks laden with 1,000-foot-long drill pipes.

Men in hard hats work round the clock in sweltering 100-plus degree temperatures and in the still of the night, under the glare of construction night lights. They’re boring down 40 feet an hour to reach their ultimate goal of 2,000 feet into the Tulare Basin aquifer. Once dug and built, the well could eventually pump up to 1,000 gallons of water a minute and turn the arid ground above into the fertile soil that California’s Central Valley is renowned for.

Large agricultural company J Poonan Limited Partnership owns the land and has invested more than $500,000 to drill the well. That doesn’t count the cost of building reservoirs to store the water, testing and environmental studies that could bring the final costs well above $1 million.

It’s an expensive quest. But when 80% of California is in an extreme drought, surface water runoff from the mountains stops flowing and reservoirs are depleted, farmers see the only way to go is down – way down.

“It’s the busiest we’ve ever been,” said Eddie Robledo, of Rottman Drilling Co., who helps oversee the drilling here.

The drilling frenzy is escalating at a fast and furious pace in agricultural counties throughout California. Drilling permits are being issued in record numbers, raising concerns that this unregulated activity may deplete the aquifer. It has already drained water away from residents – many of them poor Hispanic farm workers – who depend on groundwater from shallow wells, some that date back 60 years and reach no farther than 50 feet to 85 feet under.

“Yeah, the more wells you drill, the more wells are going to go dry,” Robledo said.

And, yes, groundwater pumping is not regulated in California, one of the most regulated states in the nation. It is the only western state without regulated groundwater management.

'A tragedy of the commons'

“It’s a surprise to many,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, a California climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, Calif. “The idea is that local entities could manage their local groundwater resources better than the state … Landowners can pump from underneath their lands.”

But the recent surge in drilling activity has sparked interest in reining in drilling. Two bills are winding their way through both houses of the state legislature that would create local plans for sustainable groundwater management

John Hofer, executive director of the California Groundwater Association, which represents 400 businesses and thousands of contractors, is bracing for some type of legislation to pass later this year.

“I’m not sure exactly what form it’s going to take,” he said. “We know it’s coming. We’re not saying that it shouldn’t but we get worried about the legislature’s often knee-jerk reaction to problems … Property rights are an important precedent and they [landowners] don’t want to lose it.”

The water crisis has upped the state’s reliance on groundwater from 40% to 60%, Hofer said.

Aside from environmental impact, the rush to drill is “also creating a tragedy of the commons,” Christian-Smith said, referring to an economics theory that puts self-interest before the common good by depleting a shared resource.

“The people who have the ability to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars drill the deepest wells,” draining water from other wells, she said. “It becomes a race to the bottom.”

Drill, baby, drill

Tulare County usually issues an average 900 drilling permits a year, but, this year, granted 900 just in the first six months, Hofer said.

“Everybody’s worried about their orchards and their crops dying out,” said Hofer, who is also vice president of Geoconsultants Inc. in San Jose, which surveys properties and advises landowners where to drill. His own business had doubled the last three years.

“Normally, we carry about anywhere from four to six months backlog,” said Matt Rottman, president of Rottman Drilling. “That was the case about a year ago. By November, it was eight months. By Christmas, it was 12 months. By the end of January, it was 18 months. Now, it’s a two-year wait.”

Most of his clients are not desperate for water but “they see the writing on the wall,” he said.

Some are replacing older wells that are reaching their 30-year life spans and others, such as J Poonan, are expanding operations.

Robert Zimmerer, of Zim Industries, Inc., in Fresno, said his company drills about 12 wells a year. Business has been at a high since the first of three consecutive years of drought blanketing the state.

“Some on the east side near the foothills relied on district water and now there’s zero for the first time in their lives,” he said. “It’s tough on everybody.”

Tougher on some

Less than 10 miles north of Ducor is a tiny, unincorporated community called Poplar, a low-income, largely Hispanic community. Mangy stray dogs roamed the streets. Many front yards don’t have one blade of grass.

It’s an area that relies solely on groundwater.

One of the Poplar Community Services District’s three wells is unused because it pumps water contaminated with nitrates, said Ryan Jensen, community organizer with the Community Water Center in Visalia, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged communities meet their water needs.

Water levels have dropped in the other two wells during this drought.

“Basically, as the water table is lowered, even if the pump is still submerged, it has to work harder to pump water which reduces the output and results in lower pressure and capacity,” Jensen said.

On Kilroy Street, near Avenue 148, resident Gilbert Masia showed the weak flow of water spraying out of his garden hose.

“It’s low pressure,” said the 23-year-old auto mechanic. “Sometimes, the hot water comes out dark.”

Poplar recently was approved for emergency funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install two pumps that reach greater depths.

“If the groundwater level continues to drop, then it is probably a temporary fix,” Jensen said. “What the district really needs is a new well.”

But the money isn’t there. The district has applied for a grant from the state to do a feasibility study.

Even if it gets it, “Bringing a new well online is probably several years out,” Jensen said.

In addition, in a number of residential areas adjacent to Poplar, private domestic wells have gone dry. Residents would like to connect to the Poplar system but the district does not have the capacity to support them.

“So, for the time being, they are left to fend for themselves. Many of them have to haul water in whatever containers they can find to meet basic sanitation needs – showering, flushing toilets, etc.,” Jensen said.

Seven household wells in a community north of Visalia have gone dry. Residents are hooking up garden hoses to neighbors' wells to fill up their tanks. The median household income there is at least 60% less than the state’s $58,328, he said.

“In most cases, you’re talking about $20,000 to drill a new well,” Jensen said. “They don’t have enough money or wealth in equity to afford a standard loan but they’re not disadvantaged enough to qualify” for other financial aid.

A vicious circle

As a hydrogeologist, Hofer can’t help but worry about drilling’s impact on the water table.

“I don’t want any of my clients pumping more water than the aquifer can sustain,” he said. “That’s just common sense. Especially if you’re investing that kind of money in infrastructure, you don’t want it lasting just a year or two.”

But right now, “there’s no way to know how much water is being pumped out of the ground,” Hofer said. “There’s no monitoring.”

Rottman said drilling will continue as long as farmers can’t get water from elsewhere.

“If San Joaquin Valley farmers were getting their [state] allocations, this boom would end,” he said. “Most, probably all, would rather have their surface water from the water district rather than well water. It’s less expensive and nobody wants to deplete the aquifers.”

That’s why developing clear metrics to measure and monitor how much groundwater is pumped is going to be critical, Christian-Smith said.

“Groundwater is our buffer against any climatic disturbance,” she said. “We have, in the state of California, a lot of science, we’ve invested a lot of state money and effort. Yet, we continue to manage water without even mentioning climate change.”

Jensen hopes that whatever solution the state legislature comes up with includes data collection and grants a seat at the table to disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by dropping groundwater levels.

Because, right now, “whoever can put the deepest straw in the ground has access to the water,” he said.

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