Is california running out of groundwater?

But between California's recurring droughts, water scarcity, and increased wildfire risk, humans have pushed underground water resources to the limit. In fact, we've pumped so much out of the Tulare aquifer that California's groundwater is at risk of being depleted. Groundwater in California's Central Valley is at risk of being depleted by pumping too much water during and after droughts, according to a new study in the journal AGU Water Resources Research, an interdisciplinary journal that focuses on hydrology and water resources. Since California does not consider groundwater to be a public good, no government agency is monitoring it closely, including exactly how many years it will take to replace all that drained water, she said.

In light of the latest groundwater projections, Famiglietti believes that California's proposed law is too little and too late. So for almost a century, Californians have drained an incredible amount of water from the soil to cultivate and irrigate landscaping. Some parts of California have reduced their reliance on groundwater by encouraging efficiency and imposing requirements such as water-efficient showerheads and toilets. As the drought worsens, there are few, if any, protections for California's depleted groundwater.

Mike Vereschagin, who grows almonds and prunes around Orland and Artois, told CalMatters that he doesn't have enough surface water and that his wells are producing less during the drought, so he had to start buying water from other producers and irrigation districts. Already in the midst of one of the most epic droughts in the state's history, California residents are already at the edge of the overall resilience of their water management system. Letting water recharge California's red aquifers would be a cheaper, ecologically sensitive and effective way to prepare for drought, advocates argue, than building more dams and reservoirs. Such sinking can make canals carrying less water an absolute irony, says Graham Fogg, a hydrogeologist at the University of California (UC), Davis, because they were built in part to reduce the demand for groundwater.

And climate scientists predict that more and more rainfall in California will fall like rain, rather than snow in the mountains. Groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley is overdrawn by about 2 million acre-feet a year, about one-third of what all Californians use in their homes. California is sinking at a record pace: A farmer in the Central Valley reported that his land sank more than 18 inches last year. Not surprisingly, these perspectives are worrying farmers across the state, says Chris Scheuring, a water lawyer with the California Federation of Agricultural Offices.

These grapes, at the Kearney Agricultural Research Center in California's San Joaquin Valley, are part of a large experiment that many hope will help solve the state's growing water crisis.

Wade Rueckert
Wade Rueckert

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