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California’s Central Valley is Slip-Slidin’ Away

According to a recent study by NASA, parts of California’s agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley are sinking approximately 2 inches a month.  The reason? Subterranean water is being pumped out by farmers to water their crops. The Sacramento Bee reports that “well water is keeping agriculture alive in Tulare County and much of the rest of the San Joaquin Valley.”  Five years of drought have taken their toll, and “farmers have been drilling hundreds of feet into the ground to bring up the water they need to turn a profit.”

The result, however, has been catastrophic, particularly in California’s poor rural communities, which are  largely populated by workers who tend the fields and pick the crops. In some towns, municipal drinking water wells have failed, leaving residents to haul water to their homes in five gallon buckets.

In East Porterville, in Tulare County, residents’ houses were finally connected to a 2500-gallon tank that is refilled by a water truck once a week, though the cost to the state to import water to Tulare County is estimated at more than $148 million.  Municipal wells have failed because of dropping water levels; in fact, the county reported that in the last 18 months more than 1,500 domestic wells have failed.

The wells that haven’t failed are at risk of bacterial contamination. With falling water tables there isn’t enough pressure in some town waterlines.  Another irony: as residents find themselves boiling water to prevent contamination, new agricultural wells are being drilled daily.  Many farmers are unapologetic as they drill deeper to pull water from beneath the ground to keep their orchards and fields alive. The University of California Davis Center for Watershed Sciences reported that farmers are pumping an additional 6 million acre-feet of groundwater this year compared to before the drought started. The reason farmers have taken such action is because they have been cut off from much of the surface water supplies delivered to them in the past by canals from both federal and state water projects. One farmer wrote to the President-elect, asking for help, claiming that “the federal government was mismanaging California’s water supply with unjustified environmental restrictions.” Trump responded, “Got it . . . If I win, it will be corrected quickly.”

California’s water board is currently rewriting water allocation plans and have signaled that their desire is to leave more water in the rivers to protect both endangered fish as well as water quality. Despite what the new administration has planned, legal experts claim that the board’s authority comes not only from state but also federal law and it is not likely that Washington could easily strip state officials of their power.

The director or California’s Department of Water Resources, Mark Cowin, commented, “We are pumping more than we are recharging . . . We don’t believe we can sustain this type of pumping.” Underground water levels are now at record lows, up to a 100 feet lower than previous levels.

Experts warn that the environment will suffer the worst effects.  According to a new Public Policy Institute of California study, “. . .As many as 18 species of native fish, including salmon, could go extinct.”  Water birds are also at risk.

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