Another day, another sign of drought. Or, at least a sign that we’ve overtapped water resources in many areas of the United States.
This time, the story comes from California—the Fresno area. Reporter Chuck Harvey at the www.thebusinessjournal.com writes about a water well “frenzy” there driven by persistent dry weather. In his reporting, he found that the number of county water well permits (both residential and agricultural) rose from about 500 in 2012 to nearly 900 in 2013. For those good with math, that’s an 80 percent jump year over year.
It’s not surprising, given that Fresno had about .75 inch of precipitation in the second half of 2013, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources. That’s about 20 percent of the historic average. Bear in mind, though, that means the historic average for the year sits at about 7.5 inches. I think the part of Michigan I’m in got more than that since the first of the year, so I feel for the nearly million residents of Fresno County.
All of my readers, of course, know that surface water makes up only part of the equation. Fresno gets its water from a combination of sources: reservoirs of the Central Valley Project, local streams and rivers, and groundwater. Reservoirs and streams are recharged directly by precipitation. Groundwater is as well, but drillers know that rain may take years to work its way into the groundwater system.
The website for the city of Fresno says its primary source is groundwater. The city has about 260 wells pumping about 125 million gallons per day. It supplements that with surface water.
The Water Resource Center, which bills itself as “vital source of nonpartisan, in-depth information about water resource issues in California and the West,” says that California’s dependence on groundwater is about 30 percent in a normal year. Drought years can push that figure as high as 60 percent. I don’t know what percentage Fresno draws from the ground versus the surface. But, broadly speaking, as dry conditions continue how sustainable is that 30 to 60 percent for Fresno, let alone a state that has the world’s sixth largest economy?
One of the drilling company workers Harvey spoke with said that getting to water has meant drilling wells about 10 feet deeper each year. How sustainable is that?
I’m not trying to pick on Fresno. I’m not trying to pick on the hard working drillers in that area, who probably ask themselves the same questions. I’m not even trying to be all doom and gloom. But I am asking, how long can this last before we can’t drill any deeper?
It’s a discussion we all need to have, and to take seriously. It’s a discussion that’s inevitable as dry conditions continue in large swaths of the U.S.
What’s your take, groundwater professionals? How do we balance population growth with available water resources? I like what I’ve seen of California, but what I’ve seen recently looked dry as a tumbleweed. Can conservation alone solve the problem? How bad does water availability have to get before people move?
As usual, send thoughts, ideas and soapbox rants to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay safe out there, drillers.