Dry Wells Plague California as Drought Has Water Tables Plunging

A tractor kicks up dust in Los Banos, California.

A tractor kicks up dust in Los Banos, California.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Near California’s Success Lake, more than 1,000 water wells have failed. Farmers are spending $750,000 to drill 1,800 feet down to keep fields from going fallow. Makeshift showers have sprouted near the church parking lot.

“The conditions are like a third-world country,” said Andrew Lockman, a manager at the Office of Emergency Services in Tulare County, in the heart of the state’s agricultural Central Valley about 175 miles (282 kilometers) north of Los Angeles.

As California enters the fourth year of a record drought, its residents and $43 billion agriculture industry have drawn groundwater so low that it’s beyond the reach of existing wells. That’s left thousands with dry taps and pushed farmers to dig deeper as Governor Jerry Brown, a 77-year-old Democrat, orders the first mandatory water rationing in state history.

“The demand we’re placing on the aquifer and the deep bedrock drilling, which is going on at an alarmingly fast pace, is really scary,” said Tricia Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. “Folks are really concerned we’re not going to be able find water in the groundwater system much longer. We are tapping it way too quickly.”

Nowhere has lack of rain been felt more than in Tulare County, in a valley dotted with dairy farms and walnut orchards at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. With 458,000 residents, it’s home to 1,013 dry wells, accounting for more than half of those that have failed in the state since January 2014.

Tulare Dust

Outside Porterville, in a dusty, unincorporated hamlet populated by many Latino citrus-farm workers, some residents use donated bottled water to drink and cook. About 40 people a day wash in the 26 showers set up in trailers next to the parking lot of Iglesia Emmanuel church. They lug nonpotable water home from county tanks for their toilets.

Annette Clonts began bathing at friends’ homes or sneaking middle-of-the-night showers at Lake Success’s recreation area after the well near her trailer ran low two years ago. When the lake showers started sputtering in November, she turned to those at the church.

“When you’re 400 yards from the lake and you have no water, you’re in trouble,” said Clonts, a 57-year-old retired cook.

The family of Angelica Gallegos, a 39-year-old Porterville resident, loads two barrels in a truck and drives to a fire station twice a week to stock up on water from a county tank. That keeps the toilet running at her mobile home.

Her expenses are up from buying paper plates, cups, wipes and napkins, said Gallegos, a supervisor at an orange-packing facility.

“We’ve got to find a way to survive, to hold on,” said Gallegos, who lives with her husband and two daughters. “Right now, we don’t have the money to drill a deeper well. You’re talking about $15,000.”

Digging Deeper

That’s the starting price for residential wells, which range from 30 to 150 feet (9 to 46 meters) and can cost as much as $45,000, said Blattler, the official with the county’s farm bureau. Agricultural wells, which are about 1,000 to 1,800 feet, run $250,000 to $750,000, she said. There are so many customers, they’ll have to wait as long as two years.

On top of the failed wells, for the second year in a row the federal government isn’t supplying Tulare and Fresno counties with their typical share from the network of dams, reservoirs and canals spanning the state. That usually covers more than 50 percent of the water used by small towns and farmers, Blattler said.

Buying water from farmers who have rights to tap rivers is becoming more expensive as supplies run low, making wells the only source for many farms.

Tulare County issued 1,400 construction permits for wells last year, almost triple the 501 issued in 2013, according to county data. Permits doubled last year in neighboring Fresno County.

Local drillers and pump installers are being inundated with calls, creating lengthy wait lists. Business has doubled since 2012 at Kaweah Pump Inc., a well-drilling company in the Tulare County city of Visalia, said owner Bill Gargan, who’s had to hire 12 more people to keep up with demand. The company has a list with 42 drilling and about 200 pump jobs, he said. Gargan said his business has been operating 12 to 18-hour days, sometimes seven days a week.

“It will probably take us six months to get all those finished,” Gargan said. “They keep coming every day.”

Eric Borba, a 53-year-old dairy farmer in Porterville, said he’s been waiting since November to have a pump installed in a well he put in last year. Six of about 30 wells on his property aren’t pumping.

He said he may have to close the farm, which his grandfather started almost a century ago.

“At some point we don’t have an option,” Borba said. “With no water, you can’t do anything.”

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