I was at the gas station in town the other day when one of our neighbors — a farmer named Bill who grows vegetables that he sells at farmers markets — approached and asked me “how are your wells holding up?”. Turns out that his well has been producing less and less water, and had finally ran dry entirely. I was not surprised, given the historic drought.
All over the state, cities, municipalities and water districts are issuing restrictions on water availability. If you get your water from a collective source, you are sharing the pain of the drought with all the other people connected to that system. But you are also unlikely to run out of water entirely. For many rural Californians though, water is not a public resource, but an entirely private one. They provide their own household water and maintain the infrastructure themselves, and the same is true of many farmers. While this water may appear to be “free” compared to municipal water, the electricity to pump it normally costs as much or more than a household water bill in a city or town.
A well is also major investment . A small “domestic” system supplying a single house runs about $30,000 to drill and a larger agricultural well for irrigation ranges from $40K up into the six figures. Very few people can afford to have a back-up water supply. In fact, many smaller rural residents use the same well for both domestic and farm use. And getting a new well drilled is not quick nor easy during a drought. Back in 2015, there was a six month or longer wait. So if your well runs dry, you are looking at a long period with no water. A homeowner can buy a big tank and get water trucked in, but for a farmer it means almost certain crop loss — or even losing an orchard entirely.
At Terra Firma, even a short interruption in our water supply could cause a huge loss of crops. So it’s always been a goal of mine to have a backup water supply at each of our farming locations: at our two main ranches we have both a well and irrigation district water. But going into 2015, one of those wells was clearly failing as well as our only well at a third ranch. As the drought progressed, they produced less and less water. We signed up with a well driller and stopped planting crops at those locations. Other farmers all around us were having similar problems, so the well drillers all had a waiting lists. When they finally showed up, we dug two replacement wells, as well as a brand new one at our biggest ranch — a backup to the backup. Many of our neighbors also had to put in new wells during that period, including several of the landowners whose orchards we farm.
Water tables around Yolo and Solano county are not continuously dropping as you have likely read about wells in areas in the San Joaquin Valley. Historically, we get more than enough precipitation here over the years to refill the acquifers and fill our reservoirs with water that is then used for irrigation and eventually makes it way down to the water table. In many parts of Solano County, the water table is now significantly higher than it was prior to Lake Berryessa’s construction in 1960. Our area has one of the most sustainable groundwater resources in the Central Valley. And with implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed by the legislature already underway, there’s good reason to think that we can keep it that way. SGMA requires that each county or watershed maintain their acquifers to historical standards, limiting new well development or even pumping from existing wells if necessary.
During the last drought the water in our wells dropped to around 100 feet deep, and then during the wet years that followed it rose back to around 75 feet. But every time the water table drops, it makes pumps work harder to “suck” the water out of the ground. That puts more stress on the well. Wells drilled before the 1980s were constructed of metal pipe with perforations — small holes that let the water in and keep everything else (sand and rocks) out. Over the years during droughts, parts of the well casing were exposed to air and began rust. The increased pressure when the pump is working harder causes the rusty casing to collapse over time, allowing sand and gravel in that eventually fill up the well from the bottom. Our neighbor Bill’s well that failed used to be almost 200 feet deep, but is now just over a hundred feet. This is very similar to the older wells that we replaced on our own farm.
Like any infrastructure, need to be upgraded. Newer wells are made with plastic casings that don’t rust and collapse. And they are drilled deeper, which doesn’t necessarily mean that water is pulled from deeper in the aquifer, just that the pump has more water to work with in the event of a long dry spell. It also takes less electricity to pump because there is greater “hydraulic” pressure behind the water pushing it upwards in the well. Depending on the location, our new wells are from 280 to 450 feet deep. I have not heard of a single modern well that has run dry in the Winters area.
Luckily for our neighbor Bill, his field is located right next to one of our brand-new “backup” wells. Close enough to allow him to connect a pipe to it and keep his crops alive until he can get a new well drilled. But over the next few months, other older wells around our area will also begin to fail and need to be replaced. I wouldn’t be surprised if all the remaining wells over 50 years old fail this year, and most people won’t have another water source available.
Like the old wells that are failing, California’s statewide water system was well-designed when it was built back in the 50s, 60s and 70s when the state’s population was less than 30 million. But I doubt anyone involved in planning and building it projected that we would still be depending on it to serve ten times that many people, 50 years later, without modernization. Voters have twice approved tremendous bond measures to upgrade and expand our water supply infrastructure, but very little of it has been spent. Will 2021 be the year that our state leaders finally realize that we can’t expect the system to keep working forever without massive new investment? Praying for rain and wishful thinking are not enough.