Inside a house, there is a bucket next to the sink and another next to each shower. A bowl in the sink catches every drop of water used to wash dishes and is then emptied into the bucket. In the bathroom, the buckets are placed under the shower while the water warms. The water is applied to a handful of plants that are still green in the otherwise brown yard.
Meanwhile, just a few hundred feet away, lush green fields and orchards are irrigated liberally (but not wastefully).
This is the scene at my house, but it is a microcosm of how the drought is playing out in the Central Valley of California. Just like most other rural homeowners, the water for my house and yard comes from a small pump in the ground on my property — a so-called “domestic” well. While I don’t technically own the water underneath the land, I have the right to pump it, and I am 100% responsible for the cost of the electricity used as well as the maintenance of the well and pump.
Meanwhile, the majority of the water used on our farm to grow crops comes from a reservoir built and paid for by taxpayers and delivered to us through a system of canals owned by our local irrigation district. We pay for the water we use every year, as well as paying fees to the district for delivering it. It flows through an entirely separate set of pipes on the farm It is also only delivered from April through the end of October — “irrigation season” for most farms in our area. A large percentage of the farmland in California is irrigated using similar surface water supplies. Many thousands of acres of that land is fallow this year because the reservoirs are at historically low levels.
Farmers that don’t have access to surface water from reservoirs have large pumps in the ground that are usually much deeper than the small ones that provide water for rural homeowners. While groundwater is generally much cleaner than surface water, pumping large volumes of water from deep in the earth is much more expensive.
In the last year, groundwater levels in our area have been dropping due to the drought. There has been less water in the creeks and streams to recharge it. And everyone has been irrigating more due to the warm weather and lack of rain through the winter.
In the last two weeks, though, wells all around us have been failing at a fairly terrifying rate as the water level drops too low. My next door neighbor’s domestic well failed last week, just a week after her farm well — which Terra Firma uses in the winter — stopped producing water. On Sunday a friend told me the well at her house had failed, and the next day a domestic well at one of our farms ran dry.
Just imagine what would happen in your own household if the water suddenly stopped coming out of faucets and showers. Stopped filling toilets and washing machines. Not just for a minute or an hour. Drilling a new well is an expensive prospect — at least $10,000 for a small domestic one. But the biggest problem is that so many old wells are failing in the Central Valley that all the well drillers are scheduled out as long as a year in advance. People are actually having to move out of their houses while they wait for a new well. Crops are dying and orchards are wilting.
Meanwhile, neighbors across the street or just down the road might have plenty of water if they have a newer, deeper well or if they are still getting deliveries from their water district. Some people are sharing their water with their neighbors; in other cases it just isn’t feasible. For example, you wouldn’t want to use water from a canal — muddy and full of algae — to take a shower or wash dishes.
It’s quite popular in the media right now to blame agriculture for the drop in groundwater levels that is causing wells to fail. And it may be true in other parts of California. But the area around Winters has been intensively farmed for over a hundred years using water pumped out of the ground — including during the last major drought. If anything, farmers are now pumping less, with more efficient irrigation systems like drip and microsprinklers.
So what has changed? The population of the city of Winters, for one. It has almost doubled since the 1970s. And it relies 100% on groundwater. So do all the other cities in Yolo County, which have also doubled in size in the last 40 years.
When you can’t flush your toilet or irrigate your crops, there is no such thing as long term thinking. And there’s onlyone short term solution when your well runs dry: “Drill deeper.” So that’s what everyone — homeowners, farmers and city governments — are doing.
Throughout history, humans haven’t really succeeded at working out long-term solutions to problems like running out of groundwater. And apparently, we still haven’t got it figured out.