Showing posts with label Central Valley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Central Valley. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

If You Think the Water Crisis Can't Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained

We're pumping irreplaceable groundwater to counter the drought. When it's gone, the real crisis begins.

Dennis Dimick

Aquifers provide us freshwater that makes up for surface water lost from drought-depleted lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. We are drawing down these hidden, mostly nonrenewable groundwater supplies at unsustainable rates in the western United States and in several dry regions globally, threatening our future.

We are at our best when we can see a threat or challenge ahead. If flood waters are rising, an enemy is rushing at us, or a highway exit appears just ahead of a traffic jam, we see the looming crisis and respond.
We are not as adept when threats—or threatened resources—are invisible. Some of us have trouble realizing why invisible carbon emissions are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and warming the planet. Because the surface of the sea is all we see, it's difficult to understand that we already have taken most of the large fish from the ocean, diminishing a major source of food. Neither of these crises are visible—they are largely out of sight, out of mind—so it's difficult to get excited and respond. Disappearing groundwater is another out-of-sight crisis.
Groundwater comes from aquifers—spongelike gravel and sand-filled underground reservoirs—and we see this water only when it flows from springs and wells. In the United States we rely on this hidden—and shrinking—water supply to meet half our needs, and as drought shrinks surface water in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, we rely on groundwater from aquifers even more. Some shallow aquifers recharge from surface water, but deeper aquifers contain ancient water locked in the earth by changes in geology thousands or millions of years ago. These aquifers typically cannot recharge, and once this "fossil" water is gone, it is gone forever—potentially changing how and where we can live and grow food, among other things.
Photo of groundwater pumping in Central Valley, CA.
California's Central Valley has seen a dramatic rise in well-drilling this year to compensate for surface water lost from the drought.
Photograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic
A severe drought in California—now approaching four years long—has depleted snowpacks, rivers, and lakes, and groundwater use has soared to make up the shortfall. A new report from Stanford University says that nearly 60 percent of the state's water needs are now met by groundwater, up from 40 percent in years when normal amounts of rain and snow fall.
Relying on groundwater to make up for shrinking surface water supplies comes at a rising price, and this hidden water found in California's Central Valley aquifers is the focus of what amounts to a new gold rush. Well-drillers are working overtime, and as Brian Clark Howard reported here last week, farmers and homeowners short of water now must wait in line more than a year for their new wells.
In most years, aquifers recharge as rainfall and streamflow seep into unpaved ground. But during drought the water table—the depth at which water is found below the surface—drops as water is pumped from the ground faster than it can recharge. As Howard reported, Central Valley wells that used to strike water at 500 feet deep must now be drilled down 1,000 feet or more, at a cost of more than $300,000 for a single well. And as aquifers are depleted, the land also begins to subside, or sink.
Unlike those in other western states, Californians know little about their groundwater supply because well-drilling records are kept secret from public view, and there is no statewide policy limiting groundwater use. State legislators are contemplating a measure that would regulate and limit groundwater use, but even if it passes, compliance plans wouldn't be required until 2020, and full restrictions wouldn't kick in until 2040. California property owners now can pump as much water as they want from under the ground they own.
California's Central Valley isn't the only place in the U.S. where groundwater supplies are declining. Aquifers in the Colorado River Basin and the southern Great Plains also suffer severe depletion. Studies show that about half the groundwater depletion nationwide is from irrigation. Agriculture is the leading use of water in the U.S. and around the world, and globally irrigated farming takes more than 60 percent of the available freshwater.
The Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 40 million people in seven states, is losing water at dramatic rates, and most of the losses are groundwater. A new satellite study from the University of California, Irvine and NASA indicates that the Colorado River Basin lost 65 cubic kilometers (15.6 cubic miles) of water from 2004 to 2013. That is twice the amount stored in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., which can hold two years' worth of Colorado River runoff. As Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist and study co-author wrote here, groundwater made up 75 percent of the water lost in the basin.
Farther east, the Ogallala Aquifer under the High Plains is also shrinking because of too much demand. When the Dust Bowl overtook the Great Plains in the 1930s, the Ogallala had been discovered only recently, and for the most part it wasn't tapped then to help ease the drought. But large-scale center-pivot irrigation transformed crop production on the plains after World War II, allowing water-thirsty crops like corn and alfalfa for feeding livestock.
But severe drought threatens the southern plains again, and water is being unsustainably drawn from the southern Ogallala Aquifer. The northern Ogallala, found near the surface in Nebraska, is replenished by surface runoff from rivers originating in the Rockies. But farther south in Texas and New Mexico, water lies hundreds of feet below the surface, and does not recharge. Sandra Postel wrote here last month that the Ogallala Aquifer water level in the Texas Panhandle has dropped by up to 15 feet in the past decade, with more than three-quarters of that loss having come during the drought of the past five years. A recent Kansas State University study said that if farmers in Kansas keep irrigating at present rates, 69 percent of the Ogallala Aquifer will be gone in 50 years.
Aerial photo of circle irrigation and farmstead in circle in western Kansas.
The Ogallala Aquifer supplies the water for center-pivot irrigation on farms in western Kansas.
Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic Creative
This coincides with a nationwide trend of groundwater declines. A 2013 study of 40 aquifers across the United States by the U.S. Geological Survey reports that the rate of groundwater depletion has increased dramatically since 2000, with almost 25 cubic kilometers (six cubic miles) of water per year being pumped from the ground. This compares to about 9.2 cubic kilometers (1.48 cubic miles) average withdrawal per year from 1900 to 2008.
Scarce groundwater supplies also are being used for energy. A recent study from CERES, an organization that advocates sustainable business practices, indicated that competition for water by hydraulic fracturing—a water-intensive drilling process for oil and gas known as "fracking"—already occurs in dry regions of the United States. The February report said that more than half of all fracking wells in the U.S. are being drilled in regions experiencing drought, and that more than one-third of the wells are in regions suffering groundwater depletion.
Satellites have allowed us to more accurately understand groundwater supplies and depletion rates. Until these satellites, called GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), were launched by NASA, we couldn't see or measure this developing invisible crisis. GRACE has given us an improved picture of groundwater worldwide, revealing how supplies are shrinking in several regions vulnerable to drought: northern India, the North China Plain, and the Middle East among them.
As drought worsens groundwater depletion, water supplies for people and farming shrink, and this scarcity can set the table for social unrest. Saudi Arabia, which a few decades ago began pumping deep underground aquifers to grow wheat in the desert, has since abandoned the plan, in order to conserve what groundwater supplies remain, relying instead on imported wheat to feed the people of this arid land.
Managing and conserving groundwater supplies becomes an urgent challenge as drought depletes our surface supplies. Because groundwater is a common resource—available to anyone with well—drilling equipment-cooperation and collaboration will be crucial as we try to protect this shrinking line of defense against a future of water scarcity.
Dennis Dimick grew up on a hilly Oregon farm named Spring Hill, where groundwater from a spring provided his family's—and the farm's—water supply. He is National Geographic's Executive Editor for the Environment. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and flickr.
Further Reading:

Friday, May 7, 2010

California's Central Valley

Fruit Stand, photo courtesy Stephen Johnson
Detail from "Fruit Stand"
Photo: Stephen Johnson/The Great Central Valley Project

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Map of California's Central Valley
California's Central Valley stretches 400 miles from north to south.
Map: Katie Parker, NPR Online

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California's Central Valley, By the Numbers

• Counties considered part of the Central Valley: 18.

• The valley is approximately 400 miles long (about the distance from Chicago to Pittsburgh), typically 40 to 60 miles wide. It would take about eight hours to drive from Redding, at the northern end, to Bakersfield.

• The San Joaquin Valley, comprising just eight of the southernmost counties of the Central Valley, is larger than 10 U.S. states.

• Population, 2000 (estimated): 5.5 million. In comparison, the population of Los Angeles alone is 9.3 million. After decades of brisk growth, metropolitan Sacramento -- the Central Valley's most populous urban area -- still has less than half the population today that Los Angeles County had in 1940.

• Despite the valley's agricultural reputation, only about 12.3 percent of Central Valley employees overall work in agriculture. In a few counties, however, that number approaches 40 percent.

• Nearly three-quarters of Central Valley land is privately owned. For California overall, about half of the land is owned or controlled by the government, especially the federal government.

• Most Central Valley counties have higher rates of poverty than the statewide average. Almost all Central Valley counties exceed the state unemployment average, some by two or three times.

Source: State of California

Most Americans, and the rest of the world, would describe California by its popular tourist destinations and economic touchstones: Hollywood, Disneyland, the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Sur, Venice Beach, Silicon Valley.

But there is another California, and it's home to the greatest garden in the world. The 400-mile-long Central Valley supplies fully one-quarter of the food America eats. It's a long, mostly flat and incredibly fertile pocket of land nestled between the coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada range.

There are no marquee destinations, only sober, business-first cities and vast stretches of farmland and cattle range. But the Central Valley is beginning to change rapidly.

Families looking for lower-cost housing in California's inflated housing market are trading a three-hour commute to work for a little country space and serenity -- and once-fertile fields are being paved over to make way for subdivisions. Farmers are under increasing pressure to reduce their dependence on chemicals for higher crop yields. And amid all this change, there is a huge Latino population -- many of them illegal immigrants -- whose lack of economic mobility impedes their assimilation into the American melting pot.

In a series of four reports, NPR's Richard Gonzales and John McChesney profile the promise and pitfalls waiting for the Central Valley as more and more people and businesses discover the "other California:"

audio iconPart One: The Central Valley's Identity Crisis
California's Central Valley is growing fast and its biggest industry, agriculture, racked up $27 billion in revenues last year. Yet the Central Valley is often referred to as the "other California" or California's "backyard," and the valley's inhabitants are acutely aware that they do not share in the glamour of Hollywood or Silicon Valley. As the population of the valley's cities grows and agriculture's power shrinks, the region's identity crisis has become more acute. Many in the agricultural community have a defensive posture toward the coastal cities -- even while the valley's new urban centers are pushing for a share in the cultural and economic success of the coast. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

enlarge map View a photo gallery for Part One.


audio iconPart Two: The Problem with Pesticides
California's Central Valley is the most dynamic agricultural region in the world, yet farmers there are under tremendous pressure from new valley residents relocated from the coast and environmentalists to clean up their act. For decades, farmers have been exempted from clean air and clean water standards that apply to other industries. But now, the state says it is going to bring them into compliance. It's the water standards that have the farmers most worried -- farmers spray on the valley floor a third of all the pesticides sold in the nation. If they have to cut back, farmers warn that prices of tomatoes, pistachios and the 300 other crops grown in the valley will be more expensive. NPR's John McChesney reports.

enlarge map View a photo gallery for Part Two.


audio iconPart Three: Central Valley, Going Organic?
Some farmers in California's Central Valley say they have seen the writing on the wall, and have started efforts to grow without a huge dependence on chemicals. State officials are demanding that farms, exempted for decades, begin to comply with clean air and clean water standards. The birthplace of modern agribusiness, the Central Valley supplies a quarter of the nations' foodstuffs and sets trends for farming nationwide. So when big farms like Muir Glenn tomatoes "go organic," it not only cuts down California water pollution, but it also provides a testbed for the viability of large-scale organic farming. But as NPR's John McChesney reports, going organic is not that easy.

enlarge map View a photo gallery for Part Three.


audio iconPart Four: Farm Labor and Illegal Immigration
In 1949, historian and journalist Carey McWilliams wrote, "The farm labor problem is the cancer which lies beneath the beauty, richness, and fertility" of the Central Valley. More than 50 years later, McWilliams would probably come to the same conclusion. By the most conservative estimates, 50 percent of the valley's farm laborers are illegal immigrants -- other estimates run as high as 90 percent. Despite farm labor laws, workers are still subject to sub-minimum wages and dangerous working conditions. Whole towns are virtual labor camps aptly described as "California's Appalachia." The region is home to a multi-generational underclass of low-skilled, poorly educated workers and their families. But unlike immigrants of the past, these workers show no sign of being absorbed into an economic track that will improve their lives.

enlarge map View a photo gallery for Part Four.


In Depth

click for moreThe New California -- All Things Considered presents a four-part series on the changing demographics in California. Immigrants from Latin America and Asia are forcing the state to come to terms with diversity on an unprecedented scale. August 2002.

Other Resources

The Great Central Valley Project, a book by photographers Stephen Johnson and Robert Dawson and author Gerald Haslam, tracks the human imprint on the huge agricultural area.

The Great Valley Center is a not-for-profit organization "to support organizations and activities that benefit the economic, social and environmental well-being of California’s Great Central Valley" through grants and other financial support.

Statistics about the Central Valley provided by the State of California.

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