Desperation Drilling in California
July 16, 2014
As the drought deepens, desperate California farmers push deeper into already stressed aquifers.
California is surviving the drought this summer because it is using its water “bank account” — groundwater. The problem for the state is that nobody knows how big that bank account is because California is the only Western state that doesn’t measure its groundwater, Howitt said.
About 5.5 million acre-feet of the 6.6 million acre-foot loss in surface water is made up for with groundwater pumping, which means that the state is really only feeling a water loss of about 1 million acre-feet, or enough to fill roughly 543,089 Olympic swimming pools.
But groundwater pumping comes at a cost to farmers — $454 million statewide — mainly because of the electricity required.
It’s anybody’s guess how long that use of groundwater can go on for because the state doesn’t know how much groundwater is being used, preventing the state from managing its groundwater effectively, according to the report.
“We’re like somebody who is so rich, they don’t have to balance their checkbook,” Howitt said. “We still think we’re in a groundwater-rich era.”
Report co-author and UC-Davis professor Jay Lund said more groundwater is being pumped for agriculture this year than has ever been delivered by the State Water Project in an entire year. (The Project is in charge of storing and delivering water across the state, with most water going to urban users.)
The report calls on the state of California to more effectively manage groundwater and allow it to replenish in wet years.
But when the next wet year will come is anybody’s guess, because there’s more than a 50 percent chance that the drought will drag on at least another year, Lund said
He said the length of the current drought may not be affected by a possible El Niño currently brewing in the Pacific, he said.
El Niños do not correlate with higher stream flows in California, so the state can’t plan on an unusually wet period coming up if an El Niño develops, Lund said.
Climate change’s role in California’s drought is unclear, and the National Climate Assessment projects that the state is unlikely to see the significant changes in soil moisture, precipitation and the annual number of dry days that are expected in Arizona, New Mexico and other areas of the Southwest.
California has always had droughts and probably always will, Lund said.
“The climate is becoming warmer,” he said. “We are seeing a shift — less runoff in the spring and more in the winter. That makes it harder to manage water because water is running off at a time further from when we want it.”
The state has a long history of drought, with some lasting only a few years and others lasting centuries.
The bottom line for California and water scarcity is that climate change will likely make it costlier and less convenient to capture water for human and agricultural consumption, but it’s unclear yet if climate change alone will mean less water overall for the state, Lund said.