Scientists take to the air to look for water under the ground

A helicopter operated by U.S. Geological Survey researchers takes off Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, in Kern County, Calif., in search of groundwater. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

A low-flying helicopter is circling above the community of Lost Hills, checking for water below the ground.

The flights are being done by U.S. Geological Survey researchers on behalf of state water officials, and the work will continue next near Buttonwillow.

Officials say they're developing 3D maps of where there's fresh and salty groundwater in certain oil field areas in the state. The first phase of that big project is the work underway in Kern County.

"We will be trying to find places where it's likely that fresh water exists," USGS research geophysicist Lyndsay Ball told Eyewitness News on Thursday. "That will help us locate groundwater resources that we should be monitoring for potential future use."

The federal agency says the work is part of the Regional Groundwater Monitoring Program required under California's Senate Bill 4, which passed in 2013. Part of the funds for the project are coming from the California Water Resources Control Board.

The helicopter is taking off from a small airstrip in Lost Hills, and trailing under it is a very large green loop. Ball said the loop is called the air frame.

"That hoop carries that transmitter loop, so that's where we're generating this weak electromagnetic field from," Ball said. She said the electromagnetic field is "completely safe" for people and animals on the ground.

She said it's no stronger than what comes off power lines or the electric stove-top in your kitchen. Ball said it manages to find the water that's underground.

"We're using airborne electromagnetics to look at how well currents move through the ground," she explained. Ball said that will show how salty the water is and give info on the rocks below ground.

"So, that helps us learn things about how groundwater can move underground, and the types of water quality changes that you would see throughout the survey area," she said.

Ball said the information will be useful to water district managers and oilfield operators. It also provides the groundwater data that the new law requires.

"The first stage of this project is to locate those beneficial-use waters that could be used for other things, and then start monitoring the quality of those ground waters," Ball said.

For that work, the helicopter flies 200 feet above ground, and the big hoop is just 100 feet overhead.

"It flies that low in part because we're dealing with pretty weak (electromagnetic) fields," Ball said, "and the closer to the ground we are, the better our data quality are."

She also said the low flights are safe and meet all Federal Aviation Administration rules.

They are using equipment from the company, "Skytem," and Ball said they have developed sensors for this work.

It's expected the project in Kern County will run for another week or two. After Lost Hills, they will also work around the North and South Belridge oil fields.

Ball said the project will locate groundwater that can potentially have a "beneficial use." That would be water that is relatively fresh, that could be used for drinking or irrigation in the future.

The researcher said when the field work is done, next they'll interpret the maps and data, along with water quality data that's been gathered from wells in the same area.

And when it's done, all the maps and data from the geophysical surveys will be available to the public at no cost.

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