By Felicity Barringer
FRESNO — The small prefab office of Arthur & Orum, a well-drilling outfit hidden in the almond trees and grapevines south of Fresno, has become a magnet for scores of California farmers in desperate need of water to sustain their crops.
Looking at binders of dozens of orders for yet-to-be-drilled wells, Steve Arthur, a manager, said, “We’ve got more stacked up than we’ll do before the end of the year.”
California’s vicious, prolonged drought, which has radically curtailed most natural surface water supplies, is making farmers look deeper and deeper underground to slake their thirst. This means the drought is a short-term bonanza for firms like Arthur & Orum, which expects to gross as much as $3 million this year.
But in a drought as long and severe as the current one, over-reliance on groundwater means that land sinks, old wells go dry, and saltwater invades coastal aquifers. Aquifers are natural savings accounts, a place to go when the streams run dry. Exhaust them, and the $45 billion annual agricultural economy will take a severe hit, while small towns run dry.
Yet for a century, farmers believed that the law put control of groundwater in the hands of landowners, who could drill as many wells as deeply as they wanted, and court challenges were few.
That just changed. The California Legislature, in its closing hours on Friday, passed new and sweeping groundwater controls. The measures do not eliminate private ownership, but they do establish a framework for managing withdrawals through local agencies.
It all happened after many farmers slowly rethought their priorities, as they surveyed a landscape of over-pumping, dropping water levels and multimillion-dollar groundwater sales. Ceding some control of groundwater management to local water agencies, an idea long opposed, became palatable enough to win over a significant share of farmers. It helped that the controls were matched by the state’s commitment to expanding existing water storage.
But the new legal framework not only empowers local control of groundwater, it sets out another requirement: When localities fail to manage their aquifers sustainably, the state can step in. Water managers in 126 of more than 500 groundwater basins — the ones designated high or medium priority — must develop groundwater-management plans by 2020 or give way to the state.
Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the new measures, and California will become the last Southwestern state to establish groundwater controls.
Not everyone is pleased. “I shudder to think that the state will enforce stringent water-removal limits,” Marvin Meyers, an almond grower based in Firebaugh, on the west side of the state’s Central Valley, said in an interview. “For the government to tell us how we do it is frightening.”
Water managers understand Meyers’ fear, but for many it has been trumped by the risk of ignoring the excessive withdrawals. Water levels in dozens of wells are at historic lows, making Arthur’s new wells more expensive. In an average year, 39 percent of the water consumed in California comes from the ground, according to a new state report. In areas with little surface water, like the central coast from Carmel to Santa Barbara, groundwater makes up 80 percent of supplies on average.
But this year is hardly average. Now, in the third year of a drought, an estimated 60 percent of the water for agriculture comes from underground. The basin under Paso Robles, a wine-growing center, is strikingly low.
And while most pumping is to fill taps or keep vines and almond trees alive, a few farmers pump to sell high-priced water to others. Not long ago, The Modesto Bee reported, farmers in Merced County made a $46 million, four-year deal to sell nearly 100,000 acre-feet — an acre-foot is enough to supply at least two houses for a year, or to cover an acre of land one foot deep — to buyers in the neighboring county. The deal was challenged and has been scaled back.
Not just farmers, but cities like Fresno rely heavily on groundwater supplies. “If we don’t deal with this properly, you’re going to see local economies crash,” said David Orth, the general manager of the Kings River Conservation District on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. “We’re going to have people go out of business because of the lack of water. We’re going to have an uncontrolled market adjustment.”
He added, “I’ve had growers argue, ‘We don’t need no stinking groundwater legislation. If I need to pump deeper, I can pump deeper.’ ”
Tim Quinn, the executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, whose farmer-heavy association was riven with dissent when it supported groundwater controls earlier this year, said in an interview, “There’s part of the groundwater legislation that’s going to have us doing some very painful things locally.” But, he added, “Groundwater management is part of a good solution to a problem, a solution that doesn’t involve a contraction of the economy.”
He hopes that a new $7.5 billion water bond that voters will decide on in November will also be part of the solution. It provides $2.8 billion for new water-storage structures. And private parties like Meyers, as well as local water agencies, are investing millions of dollars to build their own underground water reservoirs.