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The 'Deepest Straw Wins' in Central Valley Scramble for Groundwater

By Pauline Bartolone
Capitol Public Radio


This is Part 1 in a two-part series focusing on how the decrease in groundwater supplies are impacting Central Valley homeowners during the drought.

Part 2: Drought Intensifies Push for Better California Groundwater Management

During a normal year, 30 percent of the water Californians consume comes from groundwater. This year, the California Department of Food and Agriculture says groundwater will account for 60 percent.

The drought, the increased reliance on groundwater and the patchwork system of groundwater management in California is creating a scramble for water in the San Joaquin Valley.

Farmers are seeing unprecedented reductions in their allotments to surface water.

Homeowners are watching their private wells run dry.

Seventy year-old Ruth Griffin spent $75,000 to build a brand new house just outside the town of Kingsburg, south of Fresno. Her intent is to live out her retirement there near her family, in the heart of California farm country, in a cluster of houses surrounded by a sea of almond trees.

"I’ve spent my life savings to build this home, and now we can’t use it," she says.

About a month before she planned a move into her new home, her well went dry.

“See, nothing in the well, nothing in the tank," she says with a big sigh while turning on the bathroom sink faucet.

Griffin will have to spend at least $17,000 to drill a deeper well that will reach the underground water table. She’s on an eight-month waiting list.

"We’ll have to get water somehow, even if we have to truck it in," she says.

Griffin says the water problems may be from drought, but she also blames the farmers next door.

From the second floor of her house, she has a clear view of a swimming pool size basin of fresh water on the farmer’s property. She says they pump it from the aquifer, a shared underground pool of water.

“It kind of irritates you a little bit to see all that water over there. I see my neighbors'- they have 10 dogs - swimming in the pond," Griffin says. "I can’t access it at all."

State studies show groundwater levels in the area are 100 feet below the historic low.

"Usually when people are on a private well, it’s sort of a pioneer spirit of an attitude of self-sufficiency," says Sue Ruiz, who is with the organization called Self-Help Enterprises.

Ruiz is a resource for people in the San Joaquin Valley when their well runs dry. In her small town of Easton, she estimates more than half of private wells owners will have dry wells within a few years. She says investing to drill deeper is easier for some than others. In the meantime, she says, homeowners adjust.

"If you’re lucky enough to live in a community, you put a hose next to your neighbors. If your neighbor happens to have water, and so you can live off a hose for a while... a garden hose," says Ruiz. "[People] drink bottled water... [and] just be conservative with the water and survive."

Farmers say homeowners are not the only ones having a hard time during this drought.

"They're part of the problem too, because they’re there," says California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger. "Their demands have to be met, people want drinking water. Well, that farmer, if he doesn't have water, his crop dries up."

Wenger says he’s never seen such severe affects on California agriculture, not because this is the driest year, but because of the unprecedented cut backs on surface water. He says that’s why groundwater is being overdrawn in some places. In other regions, farmers are relying completely on ground water.

"What would the Central Valley look like if we didn't have agriculture today?" Wenger asks. "It would be tumbleweeds, and that's about it. Not even probably jack rabbits."

Wenger says homeowners just have to drill deeper. It’s a drought-induced scramble with farmers and homeowners as competitors. 

"Nothing's an even playing field, ever," says Wenger. "When some people built their home or they bought their home, it is still buyer beware," says Wenger.

But Peter Gleick with the Pacific Institute says the problem is the lack of state water management.    

"We don’t manage and control our groundwater in a sustainable way, and especially during a drought when there’s not a lot of surface water people start to pump and over-pump groundwater. It’s a 'tragedy of the commons,'" says Gleick.

He says California is one of the only states in the country that doesn’t comprehensive groundwater policy.

"If you don’t know how much groundwater is being pumped or how much you’re taking or how much your neighbors are taking, it makes it hard to control it, and that’s to the advantage of some people, and to the disadvantage of others," says Gleick.

The state is working on a groundwater management plan right now. But any actions will be taken over the next five years.

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