Elaine Moore’s family is running out of an increasingly valuable resource as California’s drought worsens: water.
This summer, two Central Valley almond growers’ wells ran dry. Two of her adult children are now receiving water from a new well drilled by the family after the old one ran dry last year. She’s even providing water to a neighbor whose well has run dry.
More rural communities are losing access to groundwater as heavy pumping depletes underground aquifers that aren’t being replenished by rain and snow during the American West’s megadrought.
More than 1,200 wells have run dry this year statewide, a nearly 50% increase over the same period last year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. By contrast, fewer than 100 dry wells were reported annually in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
The San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heartland that exports fruits, vegetables, and nuts all over the world, is experiencing the worst groundwater crisis.
Groundwater depletion reflects the severity of California’s drought, which is now in its fourth year. More than 94% of the state is in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
California has just had three of its driest years on record, and state water officials announced Monday that they are bracing for another dry year because the weather phenomenon known as La Nina is expected to occur for the third year in a row.
Because the state’s depleted reservoirs provide little surface water, farmers are pumping more groundwater to irrigate their crops. Water tables are dropping across California as a result of this. According to state data, 64% of wells have water levels that are below normal.
Water scarcity is already reducing agricultural production in the region, forcing farmers to fallow fields and let orchards wither. According to the US Department of Agriculture, an estimated 531,00 acres (215,000 hectares) of farmland went unplanted this year due to a lack of irrigation water.
Cities and states around the world are facing water shortages as lakes and rivers dry up as a result of climate change, which is causing higher temperatures and more severe droughts. Many communities are pumping more groundwater and rapidly depleting aquifers.
Madera County, north of Fresno, has been particularly hard hit due to its reliance on groundwater. So far this year, the county has reported approximately 430 dry wells.
The county has seen a rapid expansion of thirsty almond and pistachio orchards in recent years, which are typically irrigated by agricultural wells that are deeper than domestic wells.
Residents with dry wells can receive assistance from a state program that provides bottled water as well as storage tanks that are regularly refilled by water delivery trucks. The state also pays to replace dry wells, but there is a long waiting list.
Thomas Chairez said he used to get water from his neighbor’s well on his Fairmead property, which he rents to a family of eight. But when it went dry two years ago, his tenants lost access to running water.
Chairez is attempting to persuade the county to provide a storage tank as well as water delivery service. For the time being, his tenants must fill 5-gallon (19-liter) buckets at a friend’s house and transport water by car every day. They cook and take showers with the water. In the backyard, there are portable toilets.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in March to slow the recent well-drilling frenzy. The temporary measure prevents local governments from issuing permits for new wells that could endanger nearby wells or structures.
California’s groundwater problems arise as local governments attempt to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed in 2014 to prevent groundwater over-pumping during the previous drought. The law requires regional agencies to manage their aquifers sustainably by 2042.
Water experts believe the law will result in more sustainable groundwater supplies over the next two decades, but the journey will be difficult. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that over the next two decades, approximately 500,000 acres (202,000 hectares) of agricultural land, or about 10% of the current total, will have to be removed from production.