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California's drought has led to a groundwater overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley

California braces for fourth year of drought
California braces for fourth year of drought as groundwater drilling frenzy ensues 06:28

Faced with ongoing drought, farmers in California have sought ways to find a precious natural resource: water.

In the San Joaquin Valley, an area in central California known as the breadbasket of the world, people have long bolstered the water supply by pumping from underground basins. But experts say people have been overdrafting groundwater for years.

Agriculture is a booming industry in California, employing around 420,000 people across the state and supplying more than 400 different types of crops to consumers around the world. But with limited access to water, and with rain and snow hard to come by, reservoir levels are at record lows. Rivers have even dried up. 

While storms have inundated California with moisture in recent days and there has been an improvement in drought conditions, more than 97% of California was experiencing at least moderate drought as of last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

Amid the challenges, people have resorted to groundwater pumping, which accounts for about 10 % of water use in the San Joaquin Valley, which is home to acres of barren land.

Derick Grabow, a sixth-generation well driller, said usable water used to be just 60 to 100 feet beneath the surface. But that has since changed.

"For good water," he said, "we're going about 1,000 to 1,400 feet deep average for us."

Groundwater accumulates in subterranean bodies of porous rock or sediment called aquifers. But generations of pumping have left them significantly depleted. Nearly two-thirds of California's monitoring wells are below normal levels.

The process went unregulated until the passage of a 2014 state law that aims to end overdrafting by the 2040s.

Grabow said that now, amid the ongoing drought, the wait to get a well is about a year, if not longer. Grabow said his wells go for about half a million dollars each.

Grabow said drilling is necessary. "And, you know what ... what sucks the most is, of course, the farmer, the dairyman, the customer is paying for it."

Jesus Benitez, who has been living in the city of Visalia for 14 years, said the domestic well that supplies water to his property only works sometimes. That's because a nearby farm's industrial pump draws water from the same source.

As a result, Benitez said, his trees are drying up. What was once his front lawn is now gone. At times, even self-care and household chores are a challenge.

"I had to tell my wife, you know, 'Hey, don't wash the clothes right now because they're pulling water,'" he said.

Over 1 million California residents are currently without safe drinking water, and the majority are low-income people of color, said Susana De Anda, executive director and co-founder of the California-based Community Water Center, which works to end the drinking water crisis.

She said groundwater pumping has led to rampant pollution, making some water unsafe for consumption.

"The Central Valley is beautiful," she said. "We grow food here. But we also use a lot of fertilizer, and that contributes to nitrate contamination. However, we don't just have nitrates. We have a variety of other contaminants. Just here in Mr. Benitez's home, he has nitrates and uranium."

Meanwhile, local water districts have started to limit groundwater pumping.

William Bourdeau, executive vice president of Harris Farms, one of the largest operations in the region, sits on the board of his water district, the largest in the country.

"I do feel strongly that we need to come together as a water community and work together to overcome these challenges," he said. "There's plenty of opportunity for all of us to succeed."

California's Department of Water Resources said the state could lose up to 10% of its water supplies over the next two decades.

According to one estimate, squeezed water access could force farmers in the San Joaquin Valley to take 500,000 acres of land out of production. And even with the recent rain, the groundwater supply in California may never fully recover.  

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