Jardine: Water issues gurgle on the surface and below

09/18/2013 5:50 PM

09/19/2013 1:02 AM

It’s something we live with in Northern California.

The northern and eastern parts of the state have water. The rest of the state always wants it or wants more of it. Not only will they do whatever it takes to get it, we’ll get stuck paying part of the shipping and handling costs, as will be the case should those pipe-dream tunnels south of Sacramento come to fruition.

Equally important and more imminent is what’s happening here in the Valley and the hills to the east. Vast amounts of water are being pumped out of the ground, much of it for agricultural uses including the rapidly expanding almond industry.

Agriculture always has been and remains the lifeblood of the Valley’s economy. The lifeblood of our lifeblood is water, and lots of it.

By flooding the fields and orchards with more water than the crops and trees need, some of that water returns underground by seeping down through the layers of soil. Certainly that is the case in the Valley, where the soils can be sandy and more – here’s a real scientific-sounding word – permeable. The need for groundwater increases during years when there is a below-average snowpack in the the Sierra. The Turlock Irrigation District, which expects to pump 36.5 billion gallons from wells this year, claims to have put 520,000 acre-feet of water back into ground from 1997 to 2006. The snowmelt-fed Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers, along with the leaks and seepage from reservoirs, ponds and irrigation canals, also contribute to the so-called recharge.

(If it only worked the same for oil. We could inject our used Pennzoil or Castrol GTX into existing wells after every 5,000-mile servicing and end our dependence on foreign imports.)

Indeed, water can eventually gravitate back home, though some of it gets tainted by salt and nitrates.

But in the foothills in the eastern part of Stanislaus County, where cattle lands are being transformed into almond and walnut orchards, the opportunities to refill the pitchers are extremely limited, local water expert Vance Kennedy said. He cites a U.S. Geological Survey groundwater assessment in neighboring Calaveras County, where they drilled more than 400 feet to hit agua.

“The age of the water was determined to be 2,200 to 13,000 years old,” Kennedy said.

When a well like that one goes dry – which can happen in a matter of years, based upon the demand – it basically will be lost forever. It won’t be replenished in our lifetime or our children’s lifetimes or even their great-great-great-and-keep-on-going-grandchildren’s lifetimes when you consider that, at the very latest, the Calaveras County well developed about a century before Julius Caesar took over as Rome’s CEO.

Other wells in the hills east of the Valley will experience the same, and excessive pumping on the Valley floor already has forced some residents to dig deeper – into the ground and into their pocketbooks – to restore their water supplies. The problems are beginning to occur with greater frequency and promise dire consequences, Kennedy maintains.

“It’s going to be catastrophic,” he said.

Why? Groundwater in the Valley tends to follow horizontal patterns. Thus, while each rural property might include a well pump, neighbors often draw from the same water source. Wells are being drained by neighbors, whether those neighbors are the people next door, the water districts or farmers pumping to provide for their crops and orchards.

The foothills certainly are more productive to the economy as orchards than as grazing lands. The downside is that farmers need water by the acre-foot, while cows drink out of 200-gallon troughs refilled, in some cases, by the power of windmills – not 400-horsepower well pumps that run on electricity.

In some cases, ranchers who sell big chunks of their land to corporate investors while keeping their ranch houses risk having their own wells go dry. And there’s virtually nothing they can do about it, because California groundwater supplies aren’t regulated.

Consequently, we’re engaged in a two-front water war. The rest of the state wants it. The crops, orchards and the Valley’s economy rely on it. Residents can’t live without it.

Better hope it snows and rains this year. A lot.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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