Excessive Groundwater Pumping in California: Plausible Solution to State’s Drought?

The state of California, which has the sixth largest economy in the world, is getting a billion-dollar hit to manage the increasing effects of climate change.  The golden state has seen many droughts and environmentalists are sure that humans’ emissions have intensified them from fifteen to twenty percent. As an effect, California’s agriculture industry, which is responsible for producing the majority of the country’s fruits and vegetables, is suffering because of the poor soil conditions.  The reduction in production caused a drop in supply and an increase in price, leading to a stump in the state’s economy. California has had to turn to alternative methods, such as groundwater pumping, to access enough water to continue cultivation. Even though this method works, it is an expensive and ineffective solution for long-term issues, such as climate change.

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The cause of the drought is because high pressures in the Western Pacific are blocking the path of storms that reach the state during winter time, leaving the area without the needed rainfall for proper crop cultivation. Agriculture uses up to 80% of the state’s water availability, but in 2014, California saw a 6.6-million-acre-foot reduction in the surface water available for agriculture.  This caused a loss of around 1.5 billion—this amount includes the losses incurred in potential crop value, potential dairy and livestock value, and groundwater pumping costs. Groundwater was the “saving grace” for the 2014 drought, supplying water to 75% of the aforementioned 6.6 million-acre area, and currently provides around 30% to 46% of the whole state’s water supply.

Groundwater is dependent upon surface water, meaning, that not much groundwater will be available if there is a dry-year. Groundwater wells collect water that would’ve otherwise ended up discharged to streams or lakes as part of the hydraulic process. This is not a convenient long-term solution, as it reduces the same groundwater quality, increases the possibility of sinking ground, and, as groundwater levels decrease, significantly increases energy costs to extract this water. Despite these contraindications, some communities in California are completely dependent on groundwater for both commercial and agricultural use.

The current season has brought more rain and snow to the area, which has relieved the state’s groundwater stores; however, this is only a temporary fix as California has more dry years than wet years. There have been over 40 trillion gallons of groundwater extracted from the Central Valley from 1920 to the present. This caused subsidence, or ground sinking, to occur at a record pace; it also caused bridges to sink, and canals to crack. These fixes cost around $1 billion during the 70’s. Adding to the negative effects of groundwater extraction, according to the U.S Geological Survey, it will take around 50 years for the Central Valley aquifers to refill naturally, but only if groundwater pumping stops immediately. This is because groundwater pumping empties the aquifers faster than natural systems can replenish them. The state is drilling so deeply to find water, it is permanently damaging the soil and even destroying future groundwater extraction possibilities in the area, in case of future excessive droughts.

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Groundwater pumping is poorly regulated and there is little information on the total availability of groundwater for the present and future. Though they will be required to do so in the future, farmers are not currently required to report how much groundwater they extract. In addition, information on groundwater used for non-agricultural purposes is out-of-date and unreliable. The new regulations on groundwater pumping are controversial to some farmers, as they believe it interferes with their property rights. Some of those who reject regulation, such as the California Farm Bureau, believe that excessive groundwater extraction, and its negative effects, are not occurring because of lack of regulation, rather because of “outdated environmental policies”, population growth, and climate change. Needless to say, as many Californians depend on farming as their main source of income, they are hesitant to comply with policies that will make them reduce their water usage, which is essential to their cultivation.

Groundwater pumping is not a long-term solution to the California drought issues. The only way to see bettering in the state’s situation is if greenhouse emissions reduce, causing the droughts to be less intense as an effect of man-caused contamination.

Fabiola Aquino

Works Cited:

“6 Industries Hurt by the California Drought.” Fortune, fortune.com/2015/04/09/6-industries-hurt-the-most-by-the-california-drought/.

Bland, Alastair. “How Wet Weather Impacted California’s Groundwater Deficit.” Water, News Deeply, 4 May 2017, http://www.newsdeeply.com/water/articles/2017/05/08/how-wet-weather-impacted-californias-groundwater-deficit.

California, State of. “Groundwater Information Center.” CA Department of Water Resources, http://www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/gwinfo/.

Gillis, Justin. “California Drought Is Made Worse by Global Warming, Scientists Say.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/21/science/climate-change-intensifies-california-drought-scientists-say.html?_r=0.

Palmer, Brian. “What Would We Eat If It Weren’t for California?” Slate Magazine, 10 July 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/07/california_grows_all_of_our_fruits_and_vegetables_what_would_we_eat_without.html.


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