https://www.motherjones.com/environment ... -aquifers/Even if you’ve never heard of California’s San Joaquin Valley, you’ve likely benefited from its existence. Its nut groves, fruit and vegetable fields, and industrial-scale dairy operations contribute mightily to the US food supply. So it’s bad news for eaters that the valley has emerged in recent decades as a site of intensifying climate chaos; it’s reeling under the pressure of record heat, wildfire smoke, and its second historic drought in a decade.
It’s even worse news for people who make the valley their home. Right now, many are worried about access to one of life’s necessities: drinking water.
As of September 21, 700 residential wells have come up dry throughout the state this year, up 724 percent compared with the same period of 2020. The great bulk of them are in agriculture-dominated San Joaquin Valley counties like Tulare, Fresno, and Madera. The trend marks a grim rerun of the previous drought of 2012–2016, when residents of several towns including East Porterville, Okieville, and Tombstone saw their wells go dry.
Marliez Diaz works at the bleeding edge of the region’s water woes. Based in Visalia, California, in the heart of the valley, Diaz is the water sustainability manager at Self-Help Enterprises, a nonprofit community-development organization that provides emergency water services to residents whose wells fail. “Our services are much needed right now,” Diaz says. “We are swamped.”
When people run out of drinking water, the group trucks 2,500-gallon tanks to their homes, hooking them up to pipes so water flows through taps. Self-Help returns to refill tanks as needed. (The rule of thumb: Each resident consumes about 50 gallons per day.) As of September 20, the group was managing 585 of these tanks throughout the valley—up from 450 a month earlier and more than ever before, including during the height of last decade’s historic drought.
Of course, 2,500-gallon tanks plumbed into individual homes are a stop-gap measure. Many people who have lost water require new wells—an expensive and drawn-out process. Well-drilling companies are experiencing the triple hit of spiking demand for their services, the need to drill deeper to find a stable water source, and a labor shortage. As a result, “well drillers are backed up eight to nine months,” Diaz says. And the cost of new wells has spiked, putting a massive financial burden on low-income families. “It’s crazy. We used to be able to drill a [residential] well for $20,000—now we can’t drill anything for less than $40,000.”
The cost isn’t the only problem. The majority of the valley’s 4 million residents rely on wells dug into the same aquifers that have been overtapped for decades by agricultural interests—and that are being furiously exploited to irrigate crops as other water sources have dried up due to the drought.
Irrigating the valley’s farms takes 89 percent of the region’s water (compared to just 3 percent for residents). Embedded in what’s essentially a desert, San Joaquin’s vast agriculture industry relies on two sources for this liquid sustenance: snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range that forms the state’s eastern spine, and underground aquifers that have developed over millennia. Farm operations receive the great bulk of the melted snow, shunted through a complex of dams, canals, and aqueducts. But because of climate change, the annual Sierra Nevada snowpack has shown a declining trend for years—and will likely dwindle further over the next several decades, a growing body of research suggests.
So farmers have increasingly tapped underground aquifers, so voraciously that in swaths of the valley, the land is sinking at rates as high as a foot per year as water vanishes, a phenomenon known as subsidence. Community and residential wells, meanwhile, tend to be shallow compared with agricultural ones—meaning they go dry more rapidly than those that irrigate the almond and pistachio groves that surround towns. They largely serve people who have spent their lives making the region’s farms hum, says Nayamin Martinez, executive director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network: Latino farmworkers and their families, and in many cases retired farmworkers living on tiny incomes. “These people are falling through the cracks,” she says. “You can be without some other resources, but without water, what are you gonna do?”
We are seeing the same thing with the aquifers in west Texas where the farmers are raising crops that are not suited to dry land farming and even worse where the fracking for oil takes place. The average fracking job uses roughly 4 million gallons of water per well. Then they pump that contaminated used water back into the ground in injection wells where it can seep into the underground aquifers.
I ask the California members to chime in on this problem with the agriculture. Is it really a problem?