An irrigation trench supplies life-giving water to crops at the Fong farm near Woodland. Alfalfa, asparagus, beans, corn, processing tomatoes and wheat grow on the farm. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise file photo

Local News

Drought aid available as water becomes scarce

By From page A1 | January 22, 2014

The threat from the drought is two-fold, but some help is on the horizon.

Yolo County farmers now have access to federal loans following Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration that about half of the state’s counties are natural disaster areas due to severe drought.

And as less surface water is available, more groundwater is pumped from aquifers deep beneath the Earth’s surface whose reserves are not entirely understood.

“2013 was the driest year on record since we’ve been keeping records,” said Val Dolcini, state executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which provides financial assistance to the nation’s farmers and ranchers in the form of low-interest loans and disaster assistance.

California’s rivers and reservoirs are below their record lows, the governor’s office said, and manual and electronic readings record the snowpack’s statewide water content at about 20 percent of normal for this time of year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 27 of California’s 58 counties as natural disaster areas due to losses caused by extreme drought, according to the Yolo Land Trust. Yolo County is not one of the designated counties. However, as a contiguous county, Yolo County producers are eligible for emergency loans.

Local farmers have access to $500,000 federal emergency loans at 2.875 percent interest, usable for drought aid, Dolcini said, and farmers are asked to contact their local Farm Service Agency.

In Yolo County, in Davis and Woodland in particular, most drinking water comes from wells that pump water from aquifers beneath the ground. And lack of surface water from rain causes more reliance on groundwater aquifers.

The underground aquifers are divided into three depths, said David Phillips, director of utilities for UC Davis. He’s a civil engineer who has worked for the university for 18 years.

Shallow aquifers between 50 and 100 feet beneath the surface are used for agriculture, Phillips explained. Wells to intermediate aquifers at 500 to 600 feet are used by UCD for landscape irrigation on campus.

Historically, the intermediate aquifers were used by the city of Davis as a potable water supply. In recent years, however, both Davis and UCD have tapped into the deep aquifer, ranging from 800 to 1,600 feet below the surface, and it is now the source of most drinking water.

Phillips said rainwater takes a long time to reach the deep aquifer and, despite several studies as recent as 2005 by the city of Davis, the deep aquifer is poorly understood.

“That’s a big part of the reason why the city of Davis is moving forward with its surface water project,” Phillips said, referring to plans for the roughly $235 million surface water project jointly undertaken by Woodland and Davis. The cities will siphon water from the Sacramento River by about 2016, treat it in Woodland and send it via pipeline to users in both cities.

“Even multiple years of drought will not likely change the water levels and quality of the deep aquifer,” Phillips added. “We monitor water levels and water quality all the time, and we don’t have any clear signals one way or the other that over-pumping is occurring. We haven’t seen any clear signs of trouble, but we don’t have confidence in the long term either as more and more water is taken out.”

— Reach Jason McAlister at [email protected] or 530-747-8052.

Jason McAlister

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