By Alastair Leithead
Taps are running dry in California’s Central Valley as the worst drought in more than a century forces farmers to drill ever deeper underground for water.
In the rush to grab groundwater for agriculture, shallow household wells are drying up and those who can’t afford to dig deeper are facing a future without running water.
Working out of a warehouse, Elva Beltran is handing out bottled drinking water and helping families in the town of Porterville, where hundreds of people have lost their water supply.
“Ten or 12 new families are coming in every day – some have been without for three or four months,” say Beltran. She’s the director of the Porterville Area Coordinating Council, which is a local government agency run by volunteers.
Hundreds of groundwater aquifers prop up California’s Central Valley – one of the most productive agricultural areas on the planet – but nobody knows how much water they contain, or how much is being taken out.
For many years rainfall, reservoirs and irrigation canals have allowed this sunny expanse in California to produce half of America’s fruit, nuts and vegetables.
But after three extremely dry years, the farmers are turning to groundwater to keep their crops and their precious trees alive.
There’s a water-rush as drilling companies are burrowing ever deeper – and there’s no restriction on how many wells can be sunk underground.
“Think about the groundwater supply in the Central Valley as a giant milkshake glass, and each well as the equivalent of a straw in the glass,” said Robert Glennon a professor at the University of Arizona College of Law.
“What California law permits is a limitless number of straws in the glass, and eventually all the water is sucked out. You are seeing that as the water table is dropping precipitously.”