A Family Builds a Homestead in the Rain

What You Should Know About California’s Water Problem

If you drink water– if you cook with it, bathe with it, grow food with it; if your dog drinks it– there’s something you should know about what is happening in California. Because while it’s happening here now, sooner or later the entire nation will feel its effects.

You know about the catastrophic drought. You may know that this was the driest January in state history, following the third-driest year ever. Here’s what you may not know.

In January 2014, three years into the drought, Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to voluntarily cut their water consumption by 20 percent. Various locally imposed restrictions on sprinklers and other uses slowly took effect across the state over the ensuing months as a means to execute the reduction. Yet in the following February-to-April quarter, San Francisco brought in only an 8-percent cutback, and San Jose, the state’s third-largest city, used more water than in the previous quarter.

In July 2014, the call for conservation was stepped up to include mandatory restrictions and citations, but utilities were given no strict authority to enforce or apply fines. As of the beginning of 2015, Californians used only 8.8 percent less water than the same time in 2013, and the Bay Area a paltry 3.7 percent less.

And here’s the thing. With all this talk about municipal and domestic water conservation as the grand strategy to pull the state through, one might think most of the state’s water is poured onto townhome lawns. Not so. Rather, it’s estimated that 80 percent of water is used for agriculture in California. That important number is a rough guess because landowners with private wells are not required to report or even monitor their pumping or use, even though the water comes from the same aquifer supplying their neighbors and towns.

Normally, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, who produce about 25 percent of the food in the United States on only 1 percent of the nation’s farmland, irrigate their crops with surface water, which runs through rivers and canals and is recharged largely from winter snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. But for a second consecutive year, with snowpack at a multi-decade low, the federal surface water allotment is zero percent.

In response, valley farmers are clamoring for groundwater as fast as they can get permits. By halfway through 2014, agricultural powerhouse Tulare County had issued 874 well drilling permits— 44 more than in all of 2013, which had set its own towering record. This merely exemplifies record-breaking numbers in counties across the valley. Some farmers are splurging for their own drilling rigs because drilling companies have jobs backed up more than a year out, even though they’re working around the clock. Out-of-state drillers are flocking in to meet the demand.

And just as the wells are exploding in numbers, they’re plunging in depth, from hundreds of feet to thousands in order to reach the water supply as the aquifer levels drop. While experimental recharge has been explored in recent years– essentially pumping water back in to the underground store– depleted aquifers crumble down into the space left by water pumped out, often permanently damaging their holding capacity. Which is where subsidence comes in.

The U.S. Geological Survey calls the San Joaquin Valley— the lower half of what’s known as California’s Central Valley– the “largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface.” Because as groundwater is removed, the land sinks down into its place, in some places at a rate of more than a foot a year. This settling causes damage to infrastructure, such as roads, waterways, and railways, and it puts already low, flat regions at increased risk of flood damage when the rain does eventually come.

But even as the alarm is sounded about the unfolding man-made disaster, local and state government claim their hands are tied. No law exists in California to manage its most important resource. Rather, with disregard for scientific progress and understanding of the geology of aquifers, 19th-century laws still in place promise landowners unlimited rights to the water beneath their property– even, in some cases, for sale should they choose.

The solution? Legislation signed last fall requires agencies in regions with fast-depleting aquifers to begin forming sustainability plans. The plans do not need to be completed for another five to seven years. They will not need to be enacted until 2040.

Yet if it weren’t for the empty canals and plummeting land, you might not know the crisis that water supply is central in. The world’s appetite for almonds, recently heralded as a superfood and trending dairy-alternative, has driven the demand and price up, and valley farmers are eager to get their piece of the economic pie. Just as California’s drought was being declared a natural disaster, its farmers were racing to get 8.33 million young almond trees in the ground. And almond trees have to be watered, drought or no, whether January or July, for decades. Behind every single almond produced is more than a gallon of water.

Farmers are also free to apply water to their crops however and whenever they choose. At the height of afternoon sun– and evaporation rates– rain bird sprinklers are sending spray into the wind over valley fields throughout the summer. Orchards are drenched with flood irrigation. While some farmers are opting for more efficient drip irrigation, it can be expensive to install.

Water, on the other hand, is free.

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23 Comments

  1. March 14, 2015    

    Reblogged this on 2 Boys 1 Homestead and commented:
    I don’t understand why small-time farmers and growers are persecuted, but big time agriculture is allowed to destroy what little water California has left.

    • March 19, 2015    

      Please do NOT blame agriculture—this is where your FOOD comes from (small and large farms). What about the abundant car washes and lush, green golf courses? According to: allianceforwaterefficiency.org/golf_course.aspx, “Turf requires an average of 25 to 60 inches (63.5 cm to 152.4 cm) of water annually, depending on climate, to maintain a healthy appearance.” I’d give up a green lawn for healthy (non-gmo) food on my table!

      • March 20, 2015    

        Nicole, it’s not a matter of blaming agriculture. It’s an issue of mismanagement. If the aquifer is depleted, there will be no agriculture, period. So there must be changes made to enable agriculture to continue. This is not where your food will come from if there is no water to grow it. As for car washes, lawns and golf courses, as I mentioned: this is where is regulations are being applied now, but it is not where most of the water goes. As for removing lawns, I am 100% with you, and many lawns have gone brown across the state. In my city, a green lawn means a hefty fine. Car washes must use recycled water.

      • March 20, 2015    

        I’m not blaming agriculture, but they are obviously causing a problem in California. If 80% of the water usage is from them and they are drilling wells haphazardly to eek out every ounce of water, something needs to be done. Growing food in a blooming desert is not doing to help anyone.

  2. March 15, 2015    

    Wow! Who knew all the real behind the scenes stuff happening. I’ve read some about the problem out there because of friends that live there. Thanks for shining the light on the issues.

    • March 15, 2015    

      Thanks for reading! Even among Californians, the facts so often remain obscured.

  3. March 15, 2015    

    Sounds scary! Thank you for this very interesting post. I learned a lot!
    I had been reading about almond pollination issues, but I didn’t know about the irrigation part of almond growing.
    It’ll certainly make me think twice about using almonds as dairy alternatives.

    • March 15, 2015    

      Thanks for reading! It’s amazing what’s behind some of the things we eat. Almond (and other fruit) pollination is another huge issue that concerns me, particularly in this valley.

  4. March 16, 2015    

    I am a native Californian and it is very sad to see the waste and the people that seem to feel it is someone else’s problem. 🙁 Great post.❀

    • March 17, 2015    

      Thank you very much. It’s too bad that it needs to be written at all, and it is indeed sad (and scary) to see.

  5. March 17, 2015    

    Thank you for bringing the severity of this into light. I live in New York and I know that there is a drought going on in California. I’ve seen photos of the lakes among many other bodies of water that are no longer. You’ve enlightened me on so many other issues. It can’t be someone else’s problem any more. So incredibly scary. : (

    • March 17, 2015    

      It is very scary, and there will be serious consequences in the near future– many we are already seeing. There is much more to this, but I tried to get the basics out there so that more people can push for change. Thanks for reading!

  6. March 17, 2015    

    Very well written Kelly! I’m sharing this on my page this afternoon 🙂

    • March 17, 2015    

      Thank you– and thanks for sharing!

  7. March 17, 2015    

    I also want to mention that our family thinks we’re nuts because we won’t move anywhere that doesn’t have water. We have such great tasting and clean water access here ( a year round mountain stream & creek). Many people don’t understand why clean water is so important to us but we feel like it could be the next war10 years from now (or sooner). I personally won’t garden in a drought area. We’ve been talking about moving to the Okanagan but it’s too dry there for us, however we are looking to move as this town is too quiet. ‘Only where there’s water’ is one of our big objectives in finding our next location 🙂

    • March 17, 2015    

      I think it is the most important element of any property, and more people will start valuing it as the essential resource that it is. I’m writing a book and many people that I’m interviewing cite water as a major motivator for wanting to live where and how they do, as well as concern for the war that is so likely to come as it runs out. Our new place has a well and a spring-fed creek but even there, it is very low for this time of year.

      • March 17, 2015    

        That’s so exciting your writing a book Kelly! Mine is 70% done right now. Hard to find the time with the little kids. I hope your transition to your new homestead is going well!

      • March 17, 2015    

        Thanks, Isis! I agree, the time is hard-won with little ones. I have only one toddler, but with the move, plus I’m still working full-time, it’s hard to fit it in. Congrats on your great progress! I look forward to reading when it’s done! 🙂

  8. Confused Confused
    March 18, 2015    

    Farmers are buying their own well drilling rigs yet they can’t afford “expensive” drip irrigation? Color me confused.

    • March 19, 2015    

      I would say these are different sets of farmers, and that not a great deal of them are buying rigs, but some are. For example, I know a farmer who owns his own rig and does install drip on new orchards.

  9. Janice Janice
    March 22, 2015    

    Kelly, I am California. And with the history it is not just one thing. California is a desert, water has always been an issue. You also need to factor in that it is desert, population growth in masses, and yes misuse of water.Major change needs to happen. It is not just one thing or one is bigger than the other. It is an accumulation of so many things for so many years, even before I was born and I am senior. Great article, you may want to research even more.. so happy to see the younger generation involved.
    Janice

    • March 22, 2015    

      Thank you for the insight Janice! I agree, there are myriad factors and this article is an attempt to condense the problems I see around me in the area I am living, which I rarely hear discussed elsewhere. The water transport issue will be coming to a climax soon as surface water runs out and southern California is left– sorry for the pun– high and dry. You are correct that most high-population areas here are not self-supporting in the sense of water supply (and others of course), which has helped bring us to where we are today. I hope to have more from the younger generations involved as that will be necessary to incite change.

  10. barbara funk barbara funk
    March 22, 2015    

    I am beyond impressed with how well you have written this.
    we are out of water in California the game is up and they think
    we will still be here in 2040. no water no food
    I see people storing water and food and guns, all around me.
    there are 11 million people in LA how long before they come get it.
    fear and panic will rule the day. good luck every one
    Oregon just been declared a disaster area, they have less then us.
    is that scary or what.

Welcome!

I'm Kelly. Writer, crafter, forager, country winemaker, cook. Mama of an awesome toddler and married to my best friend. We recently returned to the Pacific Northwest, where we're setting out to grow, make, and learn as much as we can as the future unfolds.

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