California Groundwater

A very informative article about it from a farmer’s perspective.

An excerpt.

In this drought year, it’s my only hope. Yet I can’t see it, hear it or feel it. It lies hidden deep beneath my farm. Without it, my farm and my neighbors go thirsty. All my senses focus on groundwater.

With a depleted snowpack in the Sierra and record low reservoirs, thousands of Central Valley farms will depend on water extracted from wells to keep their plants alive and to grow food. Hundreds of pumps in Valley cities and towns also supply water to tens of thousands of thirsty households. Farmers and city folks will pray our machines will continue to suck water from aquifers below our lands.

We are forced to visualize a new landscape. We will desperately learn how to read maps to determine groundwater depths under our homes and farms, and make educated guesses of how much longer our wells will provide us with the life-giving elixir.

Like an explorer of uncharted seas, I’ve spread out hydrology maps of groundwater levels on my kitchen counter, trying to make sense of the curving lines cutting across our Valley floor. It’s a topography chart of the unseen and concealed treasure under my feet.

I run my fingers over the lines, hoping to acquire a feel of this unknown landscape. I have to learn how to read this new terrain and see the invisible.

Location. Location. Location. Real estate with a twist: where a farm or city lies and their water deposits (or lack of) will determine survival or death.

My farm is just south of Fresno and happens to be in a good water zone. I think I’m lucky – this is all unexplored territory. My water table sits about 50 feet beneath the ground’s surface. I have two wells, each dropping 200 feet, and good pumps. In the last 15 years, my water table has dropped 20 to 30 feet. I’m lucky. I thank my father who happened to buy this farm with unknown buried treasures of liquid gold.

Yet in the last few years, the water table has receded at a much quicker pace due to a lack of rainfall to recharge the underground aquifers and to farmers who were forced to tap underground pools because of very limited supplies of surface water. How long will our groundwater last? Who regulates this hidden asset? Who owns this fortune? These questions will haunt me for the future and will have an impact on my children’s dreams of farming.

In California, groundwater operates with very little regulation. The next great debate will challenge private property rights vs. government regulation. I believe we must first explore monitoring systems and create local districts to establish protocols for reasonable and sustainable groundwater use. This will force cities and farms to adopt a regional approach to groundwater management – we all contribute to a liquid savings account.

Yet a challenge will arise – must regions cooperate with each other? Perhaps then a water marketing structure will be established with dollars as the determining factor. That troubles me, because then my worth as a farmer may be determined only by the price of water. Will I then become a prospector and miner, part of a modern-day film “There Will Be Blood”?

Twenty miles to the west, farms sit on a cliff. Literally. The aquifer crashes downward to 200 to 220 feet below ground level. The underground terrain radically shifts and aquifers collapse. Those farmers will struggle, forced to employ deeper wells with huge pumps and for very, very expensive water. Some of that water has high mineral accumulation and is not the best for irrigation. The landscape beneath those farms is not kind.

Yet in other parts of our Valley, like the Sacramento area, it is like living on another planet. Water tables are higher than in the San Joaquin Valley and have not collapsed with this drought. It’s the luck of geography and planning, more rainfall and rivers that recharge the land, a land where two rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, converge to form the Delta.

Retrieved March 23, 2014 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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