Groundwater systems are key during California droughts, but certain communities are running dry – and there’s no real solution in sight
By Sasha Abramsky, Capital & Main
This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.
Becky Spears’ household started struggling with water in the spring.
Her family had moved into a three-bedroom bungalow on a plot of land outside the small town of Lindsay, between Fresno and Bakersfield, last November. By May of 2021, Spears started to notice changes in and around her house: “Gurgling when I flushed the toilet. We’d turn on water for our grass and within 15 minutes there was no water.”
She brought in a pump expert to examine the rural home’s 191-foot deep well. After inserting a line into it, he told Spears there was as little as 10 feet of water left in the well. It wasn’t enough to pump water anymore, he told her.
“I never dreamed our well wasn’t deep enough,” she says.
She didn’t initially fully fathom what this meant for a household that also includes Spears’ husband, their teenage daughter and a woman with mental disabilities for whom she is the conservator.
An expert from a local water nonprofit came to examine the well and found that in the weeks since the problem had first been identified, it had run completely dry. Spears and her family could no longer access a single dribble from their home’s pipes.
The situation raised basic questions that would reshape their days: Where would they get water to cook, brush their teeth, bathe and go to the bathroom?
Having moved to the area only late last year, the Spears family wasn’t there when nearly 12,000 people in the region ran out of water during the six-year drought that began in 2011.
Conditions haven’t yet reached those same depths or regional scale, but local water advocates fear it may just be a matter of time.
And already, throughout the region, this water shortage is so severe that hydrologists such as Jose Pablo Ortiz Partida, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, worry that the second year of California’s current drought is already as bad as it was in the third or fourth year of the previous water crisis.
Of the thousands of shallow wells on residential properties in the area, few are deep enough to reach groundwater depleted by changing weather and overconsumption by agribusiness.
In a panic as her well ran dry, Spears filed an application for assistance from Self-Help Enterprises, a nonprofit whose website promised to deliver a large water tank within 72 hours. But the organization, overwhelmed by similar requests from hundreds of nearby households, left the Spears’ household waiting as the summer grew increasingly hot.
Her family, meanwhile, took to filling five-gallon water jugs at their local church and at a local private school for which Spears sometimes works. When they needed additional water, they bought it at a nearby Safeway for $5-$8, which became a significant expense given that she is a seasonal school bus driver and the pandemic put her on unemployment.
Prior to the tank finally being installed, the family would drink some of the water that they got from the church and from Safeways, but the majority went into pots they heated on the stove and then poured over themselves in the shower, or to manually flush toilets.
To stretch their water supply to cover such basic needs, the household stopped using the dishwasher and washing machine. Even doing the dishes in the sink, it became clear, was a waste of precious water.
This added other financial costs: They had to pay to wash clothes at a local laundromat and ate out due to the lack of clean dishes. At that point, Spears calculates that she was spending up to one-fourth of all of her disposable income on water.
Beyond the added expenses, she explains that navigating the water shortage wears on her. “My time is monopolized,” the 55-year-old Spears said in exasperation, several weeks into the family’s water crisis. “My money is monopolized. It’s really taxing on my mental health.”
About a month after her call, amid the intensifying pressures, the Self-Help Enterprises relief organization finally brought a 2,600-gallon water tank to the property, according to Spears. After installation, she says, it delivered 1,400 desperately needed gallons of rationed water per week.
‘That water is just not available anymore’
Fred Beltran is a Tulare County-based water activist and engineer who works long hours trying to solve problems for households like the Spearses across a swath of California’s Central Valley.
Across Tulare County, homes with individual wells are facing problems, says Beltran. “Those are the ones that are running dry: really rural areas.”
Beltran lives in Porterville, a foothills town that made national headlines when local wells ran completely dry during the previous drought. Thousands of locals ended up relying on water drives and government agencies. Nonprofits trucked in water that they distributed to households in 2,500 gallon water storage tanks.
When the drought ended, the immediate emergency ebbed. But Beltran pivoted to working with water agencies to shore up local infrastructure and ensure that hundreds of residents got connected to nearby water systems to get ready for the next drought.
He was part of a broader mobilization. Gov. Jerry Brown and his successor, Gavin Newsom, made water access and drought resilience into governing priorities. They invested billions of dollars to improve the state’s water storage and delivery systems. This involved laying new pipes to connect communities to larger urban waterworks.
Authorities also facilitated loans and grants to fund the drilling of deeper wells in places where it hadn’t made financial sense to do so earlier. Water authorities also installed purification systems to filter out dangerous toxins accumulating in silt in groundwater flows weakened by drought and overuse.
The Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience Program, established in 2019 through legislation, helped to purify water systems around the state, both for piping connecting households to water systems and for homes that must use wells for water.
Still, water authorities say more than 1 million mostly low income Californians do not have access to safe drinking water.
And in 2014, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was passed to spur the creation of local water plans that protect groundwater reserves by 2042. It also sought to develop more equitable local water usage priorities so that poor rural communities, which are often Latino, do not bear outsized hardships caused by droughts — as has long been the case.
SGMA, which went into effect in 2015, gave local agencies until 2020 to come up with their sustainability plans and submit them for state review and approval.
The long-term vision for managing groundwater better is widely lauded, but in the short term, SGMA may be a clunky tool when it comes to responding to droughts like the current one.
After all, plans that have already been filed likely won’t be fully reviewed for years — and they aren’t expected to achieve their goals until 2042.
As Sarah Sugar, senior environmental scientist at the State Water Resources Control Board, notes, authorities are “looking at some of the Groundwater Sustainability Plans submitted in 2020, but our role hasn’t really been triggered yet.”
And despite efforts to make California’s water distribution priorities more equitable and capable of meeting the needs of underprivileged communities, severe drought still tends to affect indigent, nonwhite and rural residents earlier than it does other Californians.
Activists and scholars who study such issues are concerned that SGMA’s goals are more about helping entire regions navigate water crises after a century of overuse of groundwater reserves than they are about ensuring a fair distribution of water for towns and individuals within each region.
When SGMA mandated the creation of local water boards to develop sustainability plans, explains Samuel Sandoval Solis, a UC Davis professor who specializes in water resources management, roughly half of those local boards failed to include disadvantaged communities in their planning processes.
In terms of sustainability, he has calculated that measures such as watering lawns and flushing toilets less often — or more efficiently — can reduce overusage of groundwater systems by one-third.
The other two-thirds, he believes, can be saved by changing water-usage priorities, in particular by limiting water usage by agribusiness and by encouraging farmers to move away from water-intensive crops such as almonds. Absent that, Solis fears that whenever a crisis hits, poor communities — especially nonwhite ones — will continue to suffer most from water shortages.
Not everyone is so pessimistic. James Nachbaur, director of the Office of Research, Planning and Performance at the California Water Board, believes that the state is far better prepared for the current drought than it was for the previous one. Authorities have a better understanding of vulnerable water systems and can mobilize emergency resources quicker to get water to where it is most needed, he says.
But, even so, he acknowledges the limits of such efforts. “This is clearly a really bad drought,” he notes. “We’re already hearing about and seeing wells that have gone dry and supplies becoming less secure and sustainable.”
Soils were still dry from the last drought when this one hit, explains Ortiz Partida. So the water crisis isn’t worse due to a lack of snow in the Sierra Nevadas — last winter’s snowpack was lower than average, but not catastrophically so. It is due to the sheer dryness of the soil, which didn’t have time to replenish after getting parched over the last decade.
So when the snow melted this year, much of it simply evaporated or disappeared into soil pores instead of flowing into streams and reservoirs. “That water is just not available anymore,” he says.
Our water gap
One immediate consequence of the water shortage has been a drastic reduction in the amount of surface water accessible to Californians. In a non-drought year, about 60% of the state’s water needs are met by tapping surface water from creeks, rivers, lakes and so forth. In a typical drought year, only about 40% can be accessed that way.
How does California fill such an enormous gap? We drill down to reach groundwater reserves. And the more we use those reserves, the more depleted they get, making it harder for rural residents like Spears, who can’t afford deep wells or get connected to larger urban water supplies that most Californians benefit from. It’s a cycle that places greater and greater strain on finite water reserves.
Ortiz Partida fears that the state — and its largest water consumers — may not make the drastic changes necessary, and that we could see a breakdown in the water systems of much of the Central Valley in the not-too-distant future.
Given that the region is one of the breadbaskets of the world — the Central Valley produces one-quarter of the nation’s food, and roughly 40% of its fruits and nuts — the implications for food security in the United States are enormous.
A Public Policy Institute of California analysis published in June estimated that up to 2,700 domestic wells could run dry in the Central Valley this year. One large well that provided water to 700 people was on the verge of failing, explained Ortiz Partida, until late in the summer, when the pump was upgraded and the water began to flow once more.
The Community Water Center, which focuses on water access in the region, has already identified other problem areas in Madera, South Fresno and elsewhere in the valley where people have been struggling much like Spears’ household. “Residents without running water, without water to cook in, or to bathe in,” says Erick Orellana, a drought policy advocate with the center.
Beyond logistical challenges, a lack of running water has health implications. A polluted canal runs near the Spears’ property line, and some of the water drains into a pond on their land.
After their well failed, Spears’ husband waded into that pond one day this summer in a desperate attempt to install a pump that would allow them to bring polluted water into the house so they could once again flush their toilet.
He succeeded in installing the pump, but while doing so, he cut his foot. The tainted water gave him a bacterial infection that progressed into the bones of his right foot. Weeks later, in an effort to save his life, doctors had to amputate several toes.
For Ortiz Partida, the Spears’ household’s hardships offer warnings to many other residents of the Central Valley.
Between the start of 2021 and September, Ortiz Partida said that Department of Water Resources data showed that more than 600 wells had failed. And that, he says, is only the tip of the iceberg since numerous residents stay quiet about their water-related hardships.
“Many people don’t even report their systems failing — because they are afraid; because they are undocumented and are afraid of any kind of reporting,” explains Ortiz Partida.
During the previous drought, he says, close to 2,600 localities, mainly small communities in rural areas far from larger cities, reported water shortages, and it is unclear exactly how many others suffered similar problems but suffered in silence.
There’s little reason to believe that this time around will be much different.
“We’re talking about tens of thousands of affected people,” Ortiz Partida says. “And that’s on top of more than 1 million people in California without access to adequate water supplies.”