With the drought well into its third year, farmers are turning to groundwater to keep their crops green. Applications to install or replace agricultural wells spiked this year, doubling from last year. Residential applications rose slightly, having dropped steadily since the 2004-2006 housing boom.
“It’s kind of a tough thing for farmers right now,” said Dennis Chambers, the county’s chief deputy agricultural commissioner. “Water is the gold in California.”
With no surface water allocations from the Yolo County Flood Control District and limited supplies coming from elsewhere, farmers are turning to the land’s liquid gold reserves.
“We’re doing five years of work in two,” said Tom Eaton of Eaton Drilling Co. Inc, a Woodland-based well drilling company.
Most of their recent business has been replacing wells that farmers are turning to for the first time in years.
“It’s the backup system,” Eaton said. “Groundwater is pretty much regulated by the price of energy.”
But, he emphasized, business has steadily decreased around the county since he started working for his father in high school in the 1970s. Now, farmers requesting wells face wait times of up to a year. And there is no data on how many of the applications actually result in completed projects.
“A big part of the story of why it takes so long to get a well drilled is because there are so few of us left,” Eaton said.
Yolo County has seen a boom in tree crop plantings in the last five years. From 2007 to 2012, almond acreage increased 52 percent, walnuts 70 percent. While these crops are more valuable and can be slightly less labor intensive, they are expensive investments and harden the water demand for the lifetime of the orchard. This could be one reason wells are being replaced — farmers cannot afford to leave their orchards dry for a year, said Chambers and Eaton.
“With any of the permanent crops, as we see those numbers increase, we’re going to see the wells going in because that’s a tremendous investment in the ground,” Chambers said.