Kelly O’Brien listens to her well hum as it fills with cool water after more than a month of living without water at her home on July 2, 2021. ( Rachel Becker/CalMatters)
Kelly O’Brien’s drinking water well had been in its death throes for days before its pump finally gave out over Memorial Day weekend.
It wasn’t a quiet death at O’Brien’s home in Glenn County, about 100 miles north of Sacramento.
Spigots rattled. Faucets sputtered. The drinking water turned rusty with sediment. In the end, two houses, three adults, three children, two horses, four dogs and a couple of cats on her 5 acres of land were all left with no water for their sinks, showers, laundry, troughs and water bowls.
As extreme drought spread across the state, O’Brien feared that the water underneath her property had sunk so low that it was out of the reach of her well.
“The whole time you’re going, ‘Oh please, let it be something else. Let it be a switch. Let it be the pump — let it be anything but being out of water,’” O’Brien said. She worried that she might have to take out a second mortgage to afford the thousands of dollars if her well had to be drilled deeper.
Soon O’Brien learned that other wells were failing around her. She heard about one neighbor to the north, another to the east. The list kept growing: She started a Facebook group for owners of dry wells to share their woes and resources, and it grew to more than 665 members.
“In a way, you’re kind of relieved it’s not just you,” O’Brien said. “However, it’s really terrifying at the same time to think that it’s not just us — it is everybody around us.”
During the height of the state’s last drought, thousands of Californians in the Central Valley ran out of water as their wells went dry. So much water was pumped from underground, mostly by growers, that the earth collapsed, sinking up to 2 feet per year in parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
Alarmed, the California Legislature in 2014 enacted a package of new laws that aimed to stop the over-pumping.
But seven years later, little has changed for Californians relying on drinking water wells: Depletion of their groundwater continues. Pumping is largely unrestricted, and there are few, if any, protections in place.
Now, after two dry years, reports of dry wells are worsening and spreading in many new areas, leaving more families like O’Brien’s with no drinking water. Despite the law, about 2,700 wells across the state are projected to go dry this year, and if the drought continues, 1,000 more next year.
Called the Sustainable Management Groundwater Act or SGMA, the laws gave local groundwater agencies in critically overdrafted basins 26 years — until 2040 — to achieve sustainability and stop impacts of overdraft from worsening.
Those managing less-depleted water supplies, like the ones underlying Glenn County, have until 2042.
But, somewhat predictably, this drought arrived much sooner than the laws’ safeguards: As a result, echoes of the last drought are now sputtering from people’s faucets and knocking through their empty pipes.
“It feels like we’re in a very similar place to where we were in the last drought,” said Darcy Bostic, who analyzed groundwater sustainability plans at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. “Everyone talks about how it’s different, and how it will take time, but people are still going to lose access to drinking water. And we don’t really have a new plan for addressing that.”
During the last drought, dry wells were largely in the San Joaquin Valley, but Northern California is being hit hard this time. Well outages are creeping north through the Sacramento Valley, where Glenn, Tehama and Colusa residents reported more than 250 well outages to county officials by mid-August, more than were reported during the last drought. Almost half of measurements showed groundwater levels dropped last year compared to the previous three years.
“The scope is much larger than I think anything we heard about before,” said Joe Karkoski, the State Water Resources Control Board’s deputy director of the division of financial assistance. “We’re hearing from counties that we didn’t hear from during the last drought.”
Now former state Sen. Fran Pavley, a Democrat and an author of the bills that became the act, says it may be time for the California Legislature and state agencies to accelerate its implementation.
“We don’t know when the next drought will come. So when this passed in 2014, I think most of us thought it would probably be plenty of time,” Pavley said. And was it? “Apparently not.”
A changing landscape, fast forward
Interstate 5 through the Sacramento Valley offers a fast-forward view of a changing landscape. Jade green rice fields give way to the stop-motion blur of orchards. “Let the good times grow!” declares a peeling sign along the highway to Glenn County.
Sprinklers hiss in the hot summer sun in orchards near O’Brien’s home, but she still has no water. It’s been longer than a month since her pump gave out.
She’s had only two real showers, one that cost $15 at a health club, and bucket-washes with water from a neighbor’s well heated on the stove most days. She tries to avoid outdoor work that would soil her clothes and make her sweat.
“Every day was consumed with the next step on how to live your life without water,” O’Brien says.
Her dishes simmer in a slow cooker all day before O’Brien washes them at night with boiled bottled water. With no water to rinse rags, the dust that kicks up from dirt roads and is dragged inside by her two dogs builds up on her furniture. “It just keeps getting thicker, and thicker — and pretty soon you can write your name in it,” O’Brien says.
The price tag of waterless life is adding up. She’s had to purchase drinking water and a hastily acquired storage tank, and her weekly laundromat visits cost $30 each.
“All the little extras that you really can’t afford to be without,” O’Brien says. “Honestly, this is the last set of clothes I have before I have to do laundry.”
For 6 million people, it’s their only source. In a good year, groundwater makes up about 40% of California’s water supply. In a bad one, like this year, it’s close to 60%.
Fed by rain, snow and streams, groundwater is one of California’s most precious resources.
In dry years, when the flows from surface waterways dwindle, growers — who account for about 80% of all groundwater used in the state — tap into more of the underground supply to irrigate their parched crops. In 2015, growers pumped more than twice what they did in 2005.
It’s a limited store that’s slow to refill — a hydrological savings account overdrawn by up to 2.5 million acre-feet statewide every year, according to a state groundwater report. That’s enough water to supply about 7.5 million Southern California households for a year.
Californians reported 2,600 household water shortages through January 2019, largely in low-income Latino communities in the San Joaquin Valley — a number that state officials acknowledge is certainly an underestimate because most people don’t report their dry wells.
Farmers were among those who struggled, fallowing an estimated half-a-million acres of land. Matt Angell, a Madera County almond and grape grower who also drills and repairs wells, still remembers the trauma of the last drought. He couldn’t sleep, and developed diabetes that he blames in part on the stress.
For three years, desperate farmers and well owners kept calling Angell for help. “The stress of knowing people were going to lose their farm was overwhelming. The stress of people calling me and going, ‘I don’t have any water in my house’ was overwhelming.”
In O’Brien’s Glenn County, the Board of Supervisors enacted a drilling moratorium for new agricultural wells through the end of next June.
The region’s farmers are feeling the pain of the overdrafted groundwater. But they urged a more targeted approach to a ban, only in the areas suffering severe depletion.
“This county would not really exist if it wasn’t for ag,” said Matt Lohse, who told the Board of Supervisors he’s proud to be a Glenn County farmer. “My dad is actually going to have to drill a new house well, currently he’s fighting to be able to irrigate. … I get it. I understand the impact in Glenn County.”
Mike Vereschagin, who grows almonds and prunes around Orland and Artois, told CalMatters that he doesn’t have enough surface water and his wells are producing less during the drought, so he had to start buying water from other growers and irrigation districts. Without it, “I wouldn’t have enough to irrigate all my orchards after harvest, do some of the post-harvest irrigation, which is critical for setting next year’s crop,” he said.
Ritta Martin, a sixth-generation rancher and president of the Glenn County Farm Bureau, worries about California’s endless cycles of drought.
“It just seems like there’s been more dry years than not, in recent memory,” she said. In dry years, “the groundwater can’t sustain all of the orchards and other irrigated crops that we have in the area.”
“It’s scary to think about.”
Driving down county roads in her Ford F-150, O’Brien can tell which of her neighbors are out of water by the plastic storage tanks erupting from their yards. She points out rows of trees where there had once been a dairy or a hayfield.
O’Brien lives on the same lot on the outskirts of Orland that her parents bought in the late 1960s, when she was a child. She’s worked as a hairstylist and bartender and raised four children, and she now lives in a mobile home on her land while her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren occupy the main house.
Her parents moved to the Sacramento Valley from Chicago, drawn by the slower pace of a community created by irrigated agriculture. In the early 1900s, enticed by advertisements promising “Water available and in abundance at all seasons of the year,” farmers transformed Glenn County, contributing more than $1 billion a year to the economy and providing one in three jobs.
The promise of abundant water, though, has now become more precarious
Increasingly unreliable surface water supplies have led to more reliance on groundwater and less water seeping into the subterranean stores. Many dry wells, like O’Brien’s, cluster near Stony Creek. The creek, which soaks into the soil and replenishes groundwater in wet years, has slowed to a trickle, edged by green scum.
O’Brien had to lower her well’s pump once already to reach water during the last drought. But she is relieved to learn that the diagnosis this time isn’t as bad as she originally feared. The groundwater has again sunk below the reach of her pump, but not below the depth of her well. So she needs to lower a new pump, not a new well.
O’Brien noticed that her well’s problems began when nut orchards began replacing hayfields. She’s reluctant to point fingers in her small community, but the facts illustrate the problem. Orchards in the area create a double whammy: They are often irrigated by groundwater but don’t feed underground stores like other crops do when flooded.
Agriculture is Glenn County’s biggest water user, according to the county, and orchards bearing fruit and nuts have almost doubled in acreage from 2009 to 2019. More than 650 permits for agricultural wells were issued over the last 10 years, compared to 380 for households. (Not all of them may have been drilled.)
“If we had the rains and the snowfall and everything else that we needed in order to fill our reservoirs … we wouldn’t be talking today,” O’Brien says.
Still, she asks, “How many acres of almonds are we going to actually put in this county before people say uncle?”
As O’Brien drives past an orchard, the mechanical whine of an agricultural well hums through the truck’s window.
“You can hear them screaming,” she says, “and it goes on, and on and on.”
California was the last in the nation to regulate groundwater statewide.
There had been limited attempts to tackle it before 2014: Grant funding for local governments dangled in exchange for developing groundwater management plans. A monitoring program tracked groundwater levels. Some regions, like Orange County, managed their groundwater themselves for decades, charging pumpers to pay for water to replenish aquifers.
In the late 1970s, on the heels of a historic drought, then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s Water Rights Commission called for a strong state policy to protect groundwater, and recommended that local agencies take the lead in adopting management plans. If they failed, the state water board could bring in the attorney general.
The effort led to further study but little meaningful change.
But as the last drought gained steam, so did the legislation — and to Brown, it must have sounded familiar. The act tasked local groundwater agencies with developing plans to avoid worsening the major aftershocks of groundwater depletion, including “significant and unreasonable“ seawater intrusion, land subsidence, and degradation of water quality.
The state’s mandate, though, is still two decades away.
The law is “not geared for today’s drought. It’s geared for future droughts, which are going to be much worse,” said Felicia Marcus, who chaired the State Water Resources Control Board under Brown during the last drought. “They were meant as a climate change hedge and a way to assure that folks can farm off into the future. They weren’t an instant Band-Aid.”
Marcus and lawmakers involved at the time said the 20-year deadline was set because of the time needed to create new local agencies and let streams and other sources gradually recharge groundwater depleted over decades.
“It was something of a marriage between what could be done both practically and politically, along with what had to be done from an environmental standpoint,” said former Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a Democrat from Sacramento and lead author of one of the act’s bills.
Still, given the pace of climate change, the timeline gives “them maybe longer than — now looking back — (it) should have been,” Pavley said.
“For a state like California that prides itself on being environmentally oriented and sensitive, we have a long way to go when it comes to managing our groundwater and protecting access to clean drinking water for all Californians,” Pavley said.
The California Farm Bureau opposed the legislation, saying it was too far-reaching. By some estimates, between 500,000 and a million acres of farmland would have to be fallowed to end the San Joaquin Valley’s overdraft.
Now the focus is on helping growers participate in the local planning process, said Chris Scheuring, the California Farm Bureau’s water lawyer.
“Sooner or later, we were going to have to reckon with declining groundwater levels in some of the places,” he said. “Farmers didn’t necessarily embrace (the law) at the outset but they are surely trying to figure out how to deal with it now.”
“We are working so hard, and I often feel like half of the world is like ‘Why aren’t you doing this at twice the speed?’ And the other half is like ‘Why are you going so fast? You have 20 years!’” she said.
“That’s a problem, if we now have only reviewed four plans,” said groundwater act architect Pavley, who said there might be a need for more funding or staff to accelerate the review. “That’s a red flag right there.”
Paul Gosselin, California’s deputy director of statewide groundwater management, said the agency is tasked with reviewing plans that are thousands of pages apiece and coming up with “specific and actionable” input on each one. But he said the local agencies can start implementing them now, even while they’re still being assessed.
But some residents with dry wells blame local and state officials for not controlling pumping. “Who’s supposedly watching our groundwater?” said Mario Bringetto, a Madera County homeowner whose pump now sucks dirt into his pipes as the water table falls. “The people who are in charge are doing a terrible job, in my opinion.”
The former water board chair, Marcus, said “people can’t wait the 20 years,” so the Department of Water Resources must take strong steps to ensure that the plans “are based on real stuff, not wishful thinking.”
In O’Brien’s Glenn County, the local agencies responsible for monitoring the groundwater underneath her home haven’t submitted their plans yet. The water there is not considered “critically overdrafted” so the plans aren’t due until January 2022.
“I’ve heard recently from quite a few folks that (the act) is about 10 years too late,” said Lisa Hunter, who is leading the county’s effort to draft the plan. “The ones that are having issues right now, there’s nothing in place currently to help ease their fears.”
Some researchers predict that the new plans will fail to protect shallow drinking water wells that serve households, many of them in disadvantaged communities. Thousands of domestic and hundreds of community drinking water wells could fail under the current sustainability goals.
The San Joaquin Valley’s plans, for instance, could allow up to 12,000 drinking water wells to go partially or completely dry by 2040, according to the Water Foundation. From 46,000 to 127,000 people could lose access to at least some drinking water supplies.
Back in 2015, Jay Famiglietti, then a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CalTech, warned that the new law would allow “nearly 30 years before we even know what is working.”
“By then, there may be no groundwater left to sustain,” he wrote.
Since then, the rate of depletion has accelerated: It’s about 1.5 times higher now than measured during previous droughts, according to preliminary satellite data, Famiglietti said.
“Things have only gotten worse,” he said.
'You don't know how good that feels'
On a hot July day, O’Brien is leaving the dry lakebed of Stony Gorge Reservoir when her daughter-in-law texts her: The water is finally back, after five long weeks.
The first thing O’Brien does when she gets home is turn on the hose. “I’ll be damned,” O’Brien says, running her fingers through the stream. Her two pit bulls, delighted by the spray, snap at water belching from the spigot.
Inside, O’Brien holds her hands under the tap and wipes the water across her face. “You don’t know how good that feels,” she says. “To be able to put it on your face, I mean —” she grabs a packet of baby wipes off the counter, “they just don’t cut it.”
Many of her neighbors, though, are still waiting without water. Some report wait times to drill their new wells or lower their pumps are stretching out for months, leaving entire households, their pets and their livestock living on tanker truck deliveries, bottled water supplies and hoses connected to neighbors’ spigots.
But O’Brien still doesn’t feel safe even now that her water is flowing again. As endless cycles of drought grip California, the groundwater underneath her home is dropping lower and lower.
“I don’t know how long this is going to last,” she says, standing in her parched yard across the street from lush, green, irrigated orchards. “We just hope it lasts for a while. And we get some rain.”
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