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Drilling wells to quench California’s water needs raises debate

August 1, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
California is facing its worst drought in generations -- bad news for the state where nearly half of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown. With water from rivers and reservoirs in short supply, attention has turned to how to manage the state's groundwater. How much can be safely pumped from underground? Special correspondent Spencer Michaels reports on the competing concerns.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: New statewide curbs on water use are taking effect in California this week as it grapples with a major drought. The entire state is suffering from a severe dry spell, and the latest data show nearly 60 percent is experiencing exceptional drought.

As the debate about conservation moves to underground water, scientists and politicians are trying to remedy the situation with research and new rules.

NewsHour special correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: In normal years, this outcropping is an island surrounded by water that flows downhill from Yosemite National Park. But this year, the island is gone, and Don Pedro Lake, in California’s Central Valley, is an ugly bathtub with an expanding ring around it. Most major California’s reservoirs are less than half-full.

Rainfall has been sparse, and economists say the state, which produces nearly half the nation’s fruits and vegetables, faces a drop of $2.2 billion in agricultural revenue, and the loss of 17,000 farm-related jobs because of the drought.

Some crops, 5 percent of the total, have not been planted or removed because there isn’t enough water.

Felicia Marcus heads the state agency responsible for dealing with the shortage.

FELICIA MARCUS, Chair, California State Water Resources Control Board: This is the most serious drought that we have had, not just in our own generation, but in our grandparents’ generation. It’s going to have a much greater impact because we have millions more people, much more farmland, agricultural production dependent on it, and more endangered fish and wildlife that don’t have the resilience they once did.

SPENCER MICHELS: Water usage has actually increased slightly this year. And although much of the focus on overuse has been in urban areas, agriculture consumes about half of California’s water in dry years.

For decades, California has developed and relied upon water in rivers and canals and reservoirs to quench its thirst. But now, with such highly regulated surface water in short supply, water under the ground is assuming a new role.

The drought has brought to the fore an issue that has divided Californians for years: how and in fact whether to manage groundwater. That’s the water that farmers and others take from wells. And scientists would like to know exactly out how to map it and how much of it there is.

On a fallow farm near Sacramento, Michael Parks has been hired to drill for water, so the owner can plant a new field of almond trees. With almost no surface water available, farmers are turning to groundwater, and they are willing to pay increasing fees to find it.

MICHAEL PARKS, Parks Water Resources: Ever since this drought has been going, we have basically been running 24/7.

SPENCER MICHELS: And what are the customers telling you?

MICHAEL PARKS: To hurry up and get to their property as quick as possible.

SPENCER MICHELS: There are almost no restrictions and no oversight on drilling for groundwater in California, unlike most other states.

MICHAEL PARKS: The price of almonds and walnuts are up, so a lot of people are putting in new orchards, and if you don’t have the water, obviously, you can’t grow the tree.

SPENCER MICHELS: But groundwater is not an infinite resource, though scientists have a hard time quantifying it.

At the Center for Watershed Sciences, at the university of California at Davis, hydrologists Graham Fogg and Thomas Harter are looking for facts. And answers.

GRAHAM FOGG, University of California, Davis: Too many people view the groundwater system as a big black box that is going to keep supplying water for them indefinitely. It’s not. It can be overdrafted. It is being overdrafted in many areas, and there are consequences to that.

THOMAS HARTER, University of California, Davis: Right now, we have the historically lowest groundwater levels that we have ever experienced in California. We’re using more water than we’re able to replenish.

SPENCER MICHELS: Farmers like Jake Wenger agree there’s a problem. Surface water allocations are down significantly this year in the Modesto irrigation district. Wenger and his father farm 400 acres, mostly walnuts and almonds, near Modesto, and they see well water as the solution, up to a point.

JAKE WENGER, Farmer: The question becomes, as a person who can sink a well, do you have the right to pump as much water as you can possibly get out of that well, especially if it’s damaging a neighbor?

SPENCER MICHELS: What’s the answer to that question?

JAKE WENGER: Well, no, I don’t think anybody should be able to pump water just for the sake of pumping water, and that’s where you’re starting to see around the state where people want to sell groundwater.

SPENCER MICHELS: But how much water can Wenger and other safely pump out of the ground?  And who should decide?

JAKE WENGER: A lot of times, we can overreact, and so I think looking forward we have to make decisions based on sound science. And right now, that’s one of things that we’re missing a little bit when it comes to understanding groundwater, is what exactly is happening underneath our feet.

SPENCER MICHELS: The state wants to know that too, and Marcus fears subsidence, or sinking of land, if too much water is pumped.

FELICIA MARCUS: We want to know what the sustainable yield is on a basin, how much time they have, how fast it can refill, how fast the water tables are shrinking. We also have issues where the ground is sinking so rapidly that infrastructure is crumbling, flood control is being lost, and that’s something we want to know.

SPENCER MICHELS: The hydrologists have attempted answer those questions by mapping some areas and monitoring usage. But they have been hampered by a California law that allows farmers and drillers to keep well information private and unavailable for study by researchers like Fogg.

GRAHAM FOGG: You cannot gain access to those well logs. Drillers record what the material is that they penetrate and how the well is constructed. Those provide fundamental data points for which we can connect the dots and basically make road maps of the subsurface.

SPENCER MICHELS: Farmers, including Wenger, fear the government would use well records to dictate how to farm.

JAKE WENGER: You could open yourself up to a lawsuit from somebody saying, you are not putting that water to beneficial use. Now you lose the freedom of being able to produce whatever you want on your own property. Now you have someone else determining what crop you can grow, how much water you can use to produce it, and that’s not right.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wenger favors providing information on an area-wide, not an individual basis.

But some underground water sources are drying up, and predictions are various aquifers will become depleted. So policy-makers are debating whether there should be new statewide rules or only local control.

FELICIA MARCUS: Neighbors’ wells have started to run dry in a variety of locations. And so that’s why you have an ongoing dialogue happening around the state, calling for some state action to help encourage locals to actually manage this resource in a fair and equitable way.

SPENCER MICHELS: Grape grower Al Rossini wants to be sure the state has a minimal role.

AL ROSSINI, Farmer: I think farmers are a better manager of the groundwater than bureaucracy is. We know what we have. We know the value of it. We cherish it and we use it wisely.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rossini has figured out his own way to manage groundwater on 1,000 acres in eastern Stanislaus County. He’s installed wells on his land in foothills that have no surface water. He’s got sensors in the ground to determine moisture, and he sits in his office and decides when to water and how much.

AL ROSSINI: The technology from here to the type of irrigation that was available 20 years ago, this has saved over 40 percent water savings annually.

SPENCER MICHELS: Although he has enough water so far, he’s working on a plan for his east side water district to collect rainwater, because he fears what will happen when wells run dry.

AL ROSSINI: The banks will come to you and say, hey, no water, no financing. So, the problem with the drought is, it’s got fingers like a spider.

SPENCER MICHELS: Others, farmers and scientists, are proposing ways to put wastewater into the ground to recharge the aquifer. They are depending on science and technology, even NASA groundwater maps from space, plus some old-fashioned water politics to help them survive a drought that some scientists say could last a very long time.