By Kevin Fagan
LOS BANOS — Case Vlot pulls up groundwater through deep wells to keep his corn and alfalfa crops alive. Chase Hurley runs a water company nearby that sells river water to farmers who can’t depend on wells. Normally, the two would rarely talk to each other.
But that was before the drought, and before the land began to sink beneath their feet.
Now, they and every farmer for miles around are talking to each other all the time, brainstorming in ways they’ve never had to before.
The ground is sinking because farmers and water agencies throughout the Central Valley are pumping groundwater heavily from far beneath the Earth’s surface to make up for the lack of rain. The problems caused by this sinkage are many, with no easy fix in sight.
Vlot’s wells are collapsing, crushed by the shifting soils. The dam Hurley depends on to divert water into the company’s canals from the San Joaquin River has sunk so far — about 3 feet in just five years — that the river is threatening to spill over. If that happens, he’ll have less water to distribute to farmers who grow cotton, tomatoes and a range of other crops.
The deepwater aquifer being tapped by thousands of wells throughout the valley will take generations to restore, experts say. And if the sinking isn’t stopped, everything from house foundations to railroad lines — such as the high-speed rail planned for the valley — could suffer.
It’s often said in farm country that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. But when the common foe is nature itself, the fight creates uncommon allies.
“We’re all in the same boat here, and we have to work together on this,” said Vlot, 43, who farms his 3,500 acres in Chowchilla (Madera County) to supply feed for his family cattle ranch. “A lot of us need to pump groundwater to survive, but now we can’t just depend on that in the exact same way we always did before. We have to figure out how to store more water and to get more surface water.
“It’s not easy, but we can figure it out. We’re farmers and ranchers and that’s what we do — we get things done.”
Hurley, who as general manager of the San Luis Canal Co. delivers water to more than 90 growers for 45,000 acres of land, echoes the sentiment.
Another couple of years of ground sinkage caused by groundwater pumping, and he will have to rebuild at least part of his Sack Dam. In the meantime, drought restrictions have forced him to quadruple water rates to many of his customers.
Federal water officials are shipping none of their normal allotment this year for most agricultural use, and state officials are shipping just 5 percent. Some agencies such as Hurley’s get more — he’s receiving 65 percent of normal, his lowest allocation ever — because of historic water rights dating back as many as 100 years. But if the drought persists, harder change will come to those users, too.
“It’s just become something that none of us can ignore,” Hurley said as he drove through his district to check on his canals.
Hurley began to cast about for community conversation about drought challenges a little more than a year ago, and he connected with Vlot. The two have been helping lead talks since then with 25 groundwater-dependent farmers in the Los Banos-Chowchilla area to come up with solutions to their mutual problems.
Deep water layer siphoned
Vlot, whose family has been farming and ranching since the 1970s, runs 30 wells. Twenty of those go down only a 100 feet or so into a shallow aquifer, but the other 10 dip several hundred feet farther — past the vast and very tough clay layer that lies below much of the 450-mile-long Central Valley.
That’s been a common farming technique for decades throughout the valley, the most productive agricultural region in the nation. But between the three-year drought and increased plantings of thirsty crops such as almonds, the deep-water layer is being siphoned up in bigger quantities than ever.
Dipping so much into that water with no rainfall to recharge it is causing the clay layer to collapse, which in turn makes the land on the surface sink. The area around Los Banos has subsided more than most areas of the valley, according to maps compiled by the California Water Foundation.
Until a few years ago, Vlot said, the annual maintenance cost on his wells was about $200,000. As the land subsidence began to crush well tubes, that tab has skyrocketed to more than $600,000 a year.
Foremost among the solutions being discussed by Vlot, Hurley and the other farmers is storing more water from rain when it does fall. Since there aren’t enough reservoirs or ponds for that storage, the ad-hoc group plans to pick several fields among themselves to lay fallow so they can absorb the water and stow it underground.
“We’re willing — I and others — to set aside good farm ground to be used as recharge ponds, but we do realize it’s a dice roll for when that recharge will happen,” Vlot said. “You’re dependent on Mother Nature for the rain, and there’s no way of predicting when that will come.”
The main challenge is making sure that those who voluntarily leave their fields fallow are compensated for their crop loss by neighbors who benefit from the stored water.
“Farmers are being crushed by this issue, and I am facing some real trouble in the years to come if we don’t do something, so there is really no choice,” Hurley said. “Taking legal action against people, if anyone went that route, would be a very tough row to hoe. So we are all taking neighborly action.”
Other remedies being considered include trying to capture more floodwaters in a really big rain, installing stingier irrigation methods and pushing for new reservoirs — never an easy fight, given environmental opposition.
But recharging the aquifers is the group’s top priority. Doing so won’t raise the land level again — once it sinks, that’s it. However, adequate recharging can prevent further sinkage.
Nobody knows exactly how big the valley’s draw on the deep aquifers is, since California is the only Western state that doesn’t regulate its groundwater. But overall, groundwater supplies nearly two-thirds of the state’s water, and scientific studies tracking the drought unmistakably tie the usage to the land subsidence.
“Subsidence is a serious issue, and we have to think about every technique we can,” said Thomas Harter, a UC Davis professor who specializes in groundwater issues. “And one of those is how to take advantage of the flood flows we get — such as the ones we had in 2011 when a lot of water flowed out of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and could have been stored.”
Using “the agricultural landscape” to store groundwater, as Vlot and his neighbors are planning, “is hugely important, and I’d like to see it on a very wide scale,” Harter said.
“Whatever we do, we can’t just stand by.”
Another solution being bandied about is finally putting groundwater in California under state regulation.
Two bills making their way through the Legislature would create a regulatory system, and though most farmers would rather avoid the intrusion, others say it is necessary for the future health of California’s water supplies.
“We have a groundwater crisis in California, and if we’re not coming up with ways to reduce its use in wet years to allow it to rebound, we are going to be in trouble,” said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, which studies water management issues and supports regulation. “And groundwater storage is exactly the kind of project we need to see more of.”
— Reach Kevin Fagan at [email protected]