Almonds are harvested on a California farm. As crops go, nuts are water intensive, giving groundwater professionals a business opportunity with farmers. Source: iStock
Here’s a simple fact that everyone knows: We need to drink water in order to survive. However, we sometimes take for granted the fact that water is also necessary for sustaining our environment, food sources and way of life. But when that precious commodity doesn’t fall from the sky, those sources become endangered and we can find ourselves in trouble.

Just ask the state of California. A three-year period of below-average rainfall has led to a severe drought throughout the entire state. The National Climatic Data Center’s latest drought monitor shows that all of California is under moderate drought conditions. Within that map, 76.6 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions, and 24.7 percent is experiencing “exceptional” dryness.

That dryness is affecting California farmers, who have been forced to make critical decisions about their farmland due to meager water allocations. Their choices could leave up to 800,000 acres, or about 7 percent of the state’s cropland, barren and make produce prices up to 3 percent higher.

“California is probably the worst I’ve seen in many, many years,” says Scott Moline, owner of A&S Pump Service in Sanger, Calif. Moline founded A&S Pump Service in 2000 and, though he’s no longer drilling, has worked all over the world.

Although California’s worst drought on record occurred in the 1920s, today’s greater demand for available water is affecting the state like never before. A cause of that is the state’s increase in harvesting more high-value crops like berries and nuts that require more water to grow.


Dwindling Resources

Farmers in California rely on multiple sources for water depending on the location of their fields. In the Central Valley, most are contracted to receive a specified amount of water from either the federal Central Valley Project or the State Water Project.

The Central Valley Project extends more than 400 miles, from the Cascade Mountain Range to the plains along the Kern River. Initially, the project was built to protect the Central Valley from water shortages and floods, but it also supplies domestic and industrial water, generates electric power, conserves fish and wildlife, and enhances water quality.

The Project consists of 20 dams and reservoirs, 11 power plants and 500 miles of major canals. It’s responsible for managing 9 million acre-feet of water, delivering 7 million of that to agriculture, urban and wildlife use, 600,000 to households and 5 million to farms.

But this year, the Central Valley is consuming twice as much groundwater as nature is returning. During a drought such as this, farmers may not receive a full allotment or even any water at all.

“My view is that the shortcomings within the state water supply system are a part of the current crisis,” says David Landino Sr., owner of Landino Drilling in Santa Cruz, Calif., and past president of the California Groundwater Association (CGA). “We have had plans in place to increase surface water supplies since the Cal-Fed agreement was signed 15 years ago.”

California isn’t the only state experiencing a crippling drought. Texas has seen worsening drought circumstances with 25 percent of the state under extreme or worse conditions. Statewide reservoir storage declined 90,000 acre-feet in the last week of March alone.

Wichita Falls, Texas, a city of more than 104,000, will become the first city in the United States to use treated wastewater to directly provide the majority of potable water to residents. According to the local public works director, the water will be safe and all traces of sewage will be removed. The situation proves to be a testament to the struggles of water scarcity, drought and greater water consumption.


Calling All Drillers

Due to these challenges, farmers must rely on drillers as well as already overburdened wells. California is one of the few states that doesn’t regulate how much water can be pumped from underground wells, and, because of the drought, they’ve already been pushed to near their limits.

The negative effects of overpumping are plentiful and combine to be the number one cause of well failure. Pumping water down to a level that exposes perforations may increase the amount of oxygen in the aquifer and enhance the growth of iron or sulphate-reducing bacteria, which could eventually plug the well and make it unusable. Another consequence is subsidence, which is the compacting of the ground; the spaces in the land close, and once they disappear, the aquifer’s ability to store water is reduced forever. And that’s a situation that rain won’t be able to fix.

“We must work together to control groundwater overdraft to avoid impacts such as land subsidence, seawater intrusion and migration of poor quality water,” says California Department of Water Resources (DWR) director Mark Cowin in a press release.

Some drilling contractors are turning to well rehabilitation for their water needs, which is often a cost-effective and efficient option. However, in some cases, the well may already be past the breaking point.

“Each well and operating area needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. No amount of rehab is going to work when the water table drops below the bottom of the well,” says Landino. “The same goes for contaminates that follow the water table/pumpage — like nitrates.”

With some wells being completely exhausted, it’s up to drillers to dig deeper for answers — literally. Some farmers are relying on drillers to tap into once-unreachable aquifers as well as replace or deepen existing wells. But newly deepened wells have an underlying risk factor: They drain the water below already existing wells, forcing drillers to drill even deeper or risk going dry.

An example would be J.C. Boswell Farms, a cotton king in Kern County, Calif., which, according to the San Jose Mercury News, drilled five 2,500-foot wells last year. Each one, says the newspaper, is as deep as two Empire State buildings stacked underground.

“An underlying issue is the fact that drillers have to drill even deeper,” says Moline. “In our particular area, they’re drilling 400- to 500-foot wells. Five years ago, it was only 80 to 100 feet.”

The price to dig such deep wells depends on the depth and ground composition, and can range from $50,000 to $500,000 before even installing the pumps.

The California DWR is working to ensure that water well drillers submit required well logs for newly built and deepened wells in a timely manner to facilitate tracking of areas that are experiencing drought-related groundwater problems.

Also, farmers are requesting wells faster than drillers can put them in. “I would say we probably have, on average, three calls a day from new customers,” Moline says. “The interesting part about that is we can’t take them on. We’re too busy. We just don’t have the room to take them on as a new customer.

“Five years ago, we probably would have taken them on as a new customer. That’s where it becomes a double-edged sword — because we’re so committed, we can’t take them on.”

Landino agrees. “All of this has worked to create a lot of demand that the drilling side is not prepared for.”


Save the Water

Most farmers have anywhere from one pump to 50. New drilling technologies have made it possible to tap into deep underground water basins, but some aren’t accustomed to drilling at such depths. The equipment required for these circumstances need to be bigger, better and stronger.

Moline prepared for the increase in jobs, as well as California emissions standards, by working with larger capacity equipment. He uses a 10-T Smeal with 27,000-pounds of capacity and an S25000 SEMCO.

Farmers and drillers alike are looking for answers to their water scarcity problems. Though well rehabilitation is a solution, according to Landino, there are other services that drillers can offer to farmers to help meet their water needs. Drip irrigation is one.

Drip irrigation is a method that saves water by allowing it to drip slowly to the roots of plants through a network of valves, pipes, tubing and more. It’s usually adopted by farmers in areas of acute water scarcity.

He also mentions other water conservation methods such as VFD drives, off-peak pumpage and better well construction to limit sand production.

With summer months and warmer temperatures looming, the drought seems like a formidable opponent with no plans of surrender. Reservoirs that rely on rainwater and snow melt are dangerously low. Thankfully, groundwater is a solution. But the question remains: For how long?

This won’t be the last drought for California or Texas, but with proper planning, products and training the groundwater industry can continue to provide this precious commodity.