Shrinking water supply has geologists concerned about sinking Central Valley

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Water-well drillers are working 24 hours a day during the California drought. They're digging wells for desperate farmers.

Matt Rottman of Rottman Drilling in Lancaster said his company is booked for the next two years. In business since the 1960s, Rottman said his company has never been this busy.

As a result of the drought crisis, farmers are now looking below their land to save what's above.

"Our only option was to drill another well here, and hopefully it will be enough and not too little too late," said John Gless, a citrus farmer in Kern County.

Faced with limited water allocation from the state, Gless has already cut down 60 acres of trees. He may barely get by with what he can drill but the problem facing farmers and the community goes much deeper.

"In the San Joaquin Valley, we're talking about land subsidence due to the compaction of the aquifer system, which is a result of lowering ground water levels, which is mostly caused by pumping," said hydrologist Michelle
Sneed of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The USGS is keeping a close eye on the impact of pumping groundwater.

She explained that as the aquifers are pumped dry, the ground above literally sinks. A famous picture taken The in the San Joaquin Valley southwest of Mendota shows that between 1925 and 1970 the ground dropped 30 feet in 50 years. Sneed said it's only getting worse.

"Since 2008, there is an area about a foot a year, and that is one of the highest rates ever measured. If we continue at this rate, we're going to see 30 feet in 30 years," said Sneed.

Since it is impossible reinforce underground aquifers, when the land sinks it takes whatever is on top along for the ride. Sneed warns that because most infrastructure isn't very flexible, like roads, railways and pipelines, they end up being broken or impacted because of subsidence.

Ironically, all that the groundwater pumping is also affecting the way we move water on the surface. The sinking valley is damaging water canals that bring water to thirsty Southern California, and also protect us from flooding in wet years. If flood control channels are damaged by subsiding land, they will not be able to properly direct water flow away from the towns and cities in the Central Valley.

There is no way to reverse the damage done. Now, the question becomes how to become more responsible with the water we have.

"There are better ways to manage water, and we need to do that," said Rottman.

It may seem odd, but Rottman is praying for rain, hoping resources don't run out. He worries increased planting at homes and farms are stressing our already strapped resources.

"We live in a desert in a lot of cases, and we probably ought to start acting like it," said Rottman.

The USGS confirms that year-round irrigation and increased planting is a major factor draining the valley.

"The crops that are being planted, the permanent crops are being planted in a denser formation so there are more trees," said Sneed.

On the other side of that debate is the farmer. To meet consumer demand, farmers like Gless believe this type of farming can be sustained with better planning.

"Even when the drought's over, we can't ever let this happen again. We need storage built. This should never happen here, and something has got to be done," Gless said. "It's going to affect all of us, but it's gonna effect everybody at the grocery store."

California is the only state in the western United States that does not regulate groundwater pumping. There are currently bills in both the Assembly and state Senate that would change that.