Dry times put extra focus on groundwater

Issue Date: September 10, 2008
Christine Souza

Some rely on it as their sole source of supply. Others count on it as a crucial supplement when alternative sources are restricted. And many farmers describe groundwater as an increasing source of worry.

The combination of drought and court-imposed water cutbacks has put more pressure on the state's groundwater resources. Farmers like Tulare County walnut grower Terry Langiano say they must dig deeper to find water and they worry that not enough is being done to assure reliable supplies from both underground and surface water sources.

Tulare County walnut grower Terry Langiano checks his farm's soil profile with a tensiometer to determine the optimum timing and duration for irrigating his trees.

"The water level has dropped 23 percent in the last two years and right now the pumping level is the lowest it has been since I've been recording this information, at 121.5 feet. In 1987 it was 52.5 feet pumping water level," said Langiano, a director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. "Our irrigation well, within inches of breaking pump suction, had to be extended by 10 feet to the well bottom. We plan a new well after harvest in October that will cost in excess of $60,000."

Langiano, who relies 100 percent on groundwater to irrigate 40 acres of walnuts, said he hopes he can stretch the supply far enough to complete two more irrigations, one prior to walnut harvest at the end of the month and another after harvest. The reduced amount of water has resulted in increased cost and more time needed to complete the irrigation.

"Overall, things are looking OK for the remainder of the season; I just have my fingers crossed," said Langiano, who is among nearly 200 farmers and ranchers who described how the state's current water crisis is affecting them in a survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. "When surface water is curtailed, you see it and you know it immediately. But groundwater is out of sight, out of mind for a majority of people."

Like farmers throughout the Central Valley, those on the Central Coast also feel the pinch of the reduced amount of groundwater.

"One thing about most coastal areas where you have irrigation taking place is our streams have to come up and run to recharge our water basins," said San Luis Obispo County winegrape and cereal grain grower Ric Fuller. "We've seen our groundwater in this area drop like it is in many areas of the state this year, probably because we've had at least five years of abnormal rainfall."

One vineyard that Fuller farms was planted in the early 1970s, which is problematic, he says, because aging wells are typically not as deep as more modern wells.

"We are going to dig a little deeper and drill a new well to make sure that we've got enough water," he said. "The entire vineyard is drip irrigated and we have 20 moisture sensors with data loggers in place, so we are as efficient as anyone. We try not to use any more water than necessary."

Fuller began picking chardonnay winegrapes last week and said he believes he has enough water to finish harvest. However, with no guarantees that the current drought will break in 2009, he plans to bring a new well online in the next 90 days.

"This is really disheartening to me because my future is tied to the land here and I'm a guy who is 60 years old and I've spent my entire life in agriculture," Fuller said. "I'm looking at it today and things don't look the way they should and I'm just a little uneasy."

Donna Lee Sauber of El Dorado County has cut down some of her fruit trees because of concerns about water supplies. She and her husband Jim have also grown winegrapes for more than 20 years. Their vineyard is planted at an elevation of between 2,600 and 3,000 feet, and Sauber said she relies on fissure water—water that comes up through the cracks in the rocks. However, not much is coming out at the moment.

"We have five wells and in the last few weeks we've had to give them a longer recovery period between waterings," said Sauber, a director for El Dorado County Farm Bureau. "I understand that for fissure water to get down to us, it takes three years and in this part of California we've had a three-year drought.

"We are very concerned that next year these wells won't even pump what they are doing this year. Then we could be in real trouble."

Sauber also grew five acres of peaches and nectarines, but to conserve water for the winegrapes she decided to remove all but two acres of the fruit trees.

"We started picking in the existing vineyard and we'll be picking through October, so we still need water for another three weeks and we are crossing our fingers," she said.

With quite a bit on the line, Sauber said, she will continue to pray for rain.

"If it doesn't rain this winter I know there is nothing left," Sauber said.

Madera pistachio grower Tom Coleman, who irrigates with 50 percent groundwater, began harvesting his trees last week, a little sooner than he would have liked.

"I'm starting harvest a little early because in some of the places we're just not going to be able to keep them wet enough," Coleman said. "The groundwater supply is dropping dramatically and what we're having to do is run the pumps longer and irrigate smaller parcels of ground with each one of those irrigations, so we're just doing a round-robin irrigation if you will."

Coleman said he also worries about how the water shortages will affect his trees' production next year.

"When you stress the trees during July and August, it not only damages the current year crop, it will cause damage to the following year's crop. The stress will cause them to abort their fruit buds for next year," he added.

California Groundwater Association Executive Director Mike Mortensson said the close to 1,000 licensed well drillers working in the state are busy and there are plenty of backlogs. Mortensson suggests growers make sure that the drillers they hire possess a C-57 license that is required by state law.

"This is the kind of thing you don't do overnight," Mortensson said. "What is at stake here is the aquifer and your long-term supply and you need to have a professional that is licensed that can drill a well properly according to state standards."

The cost of an agricultural well, Mortensson said, depends on the size of the well, the depth of the well and the materials being drilled through. The final price tag could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As they stretch their existing supplies and drill new wells in response to immediate needs, farmers impacted by the drought are calling for long-term solutions.

"We definitely need to increase storage and delivery systems to avoid the areas that are sensitive to minimal flows," Langiano said.

Fuller suggests that California raise lake levels to store additional water.

"Our population has risen and we haven't built a new reservoir in what...since the mid-1970s? We've got to think about raising the level of these lakes so we have more water storage and somebody has to come to grips with this problem with the delta smelt," he added.

"You look at the politics of it, everything going on with the delta smelt, the lack of water storage capacity in this state and put it all together, it is shaping up to be a perfect storm and it is going to affect everybody in this state," Fuller said.

Jack Rice, associate counsel in the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division, stresses that protecting groundwater, and farmers' access to it, is essential to California agriculture.

"Like all water supplies, during dry periods the groundwater resource is strained and when the resource is strained, the issues begin to heat up. For groundwater, this typically means increased discussions regarding groundwater management," Rice said. "In many cases, groundwater management may be appropriate to protect the resource. However, it is imperative that this management occur at the local level and be developed and directed by the landowners most affected by the policy."

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.