VISALIA, Calif. — Vicki McDowell woke up on a Saturday morning in May, thinking about what she would make her son for breakfast. He was visiting from Hayward, and she wanted to whip up something special. Biscuits and gravy. Fried potatoes. Eggs.
She walked to the kitchen sink to wash her hands. Turned on the faucet. Nothing happened. Worried, she tried the bathroom sink. Still nothing. She flushed the toilet. It gurgled.
The 70-year-old called her landlord. He called a well driller. The news was grim. The well that pumped water to the small, cream-colored house she rents on an olive ranch had gone dry. Seven months have passed. It’s still dry.
“I’ve never lived in the country,” said McDowell, who moved here to the outskirts of the Tulare County seat three years ago. “I thought, that’s an easy fix. It wasn’t.”
In the verdant San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation's most productive farming regions, domestic wells like McDowell's are drying up at an alarming pace as a frenzy of new well construction and heavy agricultural pumping sends the underground water supply to new lows during one of the most severe droughts on record.
During California’s last extreme drought, which stretched from 2012 through 2016, lawmakers scrambled to protect the state’s dwindling groundwater. The resulting law, however, was limited by politics and compromise. It set up a framework to manage groundwater, but so far has done little to safeguard the precious resource.
The Los Angeles Times analyzed state groundwater data from the hard-hit San Joaquin Valley and found that 2021 is on track to see the most agricultural wells drilled since the last drought ended.
The Times analysis found that more than 6,200 agriculture wells have been drilled in the valley since the flawed Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, known as SGMA, was passed in 2014.
The San Joaquin Valley stretches more than 250 miles from south of Sacramento to the Grapevine.
Farmers all across the valley have not slowed well construction even after a groundwater law was passed in an effort to address unsustainable drilling and pumping.
This year, more than 630 new agriculture wells have gone in. Forty percent are in, the highest concentration in the state.
The Times sifted through more than 1 million Well Completion Reports from the state Department of Water Resources. These reports were used to analyze patterns in well drilling — including dates, locations and depths — to understand how the agriculture industry’s access to groundwater has increased over time. Another source was the department’s periodic groundwater level measurements data, a collection of more than 2 million records from thousands of wells across the state, to track the impact of drilling and pumping on the water supply.
The sobering results show a region in which agriculture has vastly outgrown its water supply. In Tulare County, where agriculture is the top industry and brought in more than $7 billion in 2020, hundreds of families have been left without running water. The most harm has been felt by low-income residents and small farmers. Continued heavy pumping and unchecked agricultural well drilling have left the future water supply in question.
Michael Hagman, executive director of the East Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency, calls the region the “poster child” for groundwater overuse.
“We’re doing it wrong. We’re destroying our groundwater, and we need to do something about it,” said Hagman, whose organization is one of nearly a dozen groundwater agencies that SGMA established in Tulare County.
Farmers in the region are “screwing it up,” said Hagman, who farms 12 acres of mandarin oranges north of Porterville.
“We’ve been playing this game: The person with the most money who can dig the deepest well will win the game,” he said. “That just puts every little guy and gal out of business. They just can’t drill like that.”
But they do.
Drive south on Highway 99, as it bisects the San Joaquin Valley, and the farm towns fly by: Selma and Kingsburg and Traver and Goshen. Right around Tipton, before you hit Pixley, a billboard rises up from the dust and commands: “Pray for Rain.”
It’s a reminder you’re in rural, agricultural California, where, even in the depths of drought, lush pistachio and almond orchards spread for miles, alternating with fields of alfalfa, solar panels and vineyards heavy with fruit.
Farms here have been overpumping groundwater for decades and have even caused the land to sink in some areas, damaging irrigation canals and other infrastructure. The pumping becomes even more intense in times of drought, when the state cuts allocations of surface water and farmers respond by pumping more groundwater.
And that concerns Melissa M. Rohde, a groundwater scientist with the Nature Conservancy.
“When groundwater levels drop, the impacts are, in general, disproportionately felt by sensitive ecosystems and disadvantaged communities, including domestic well owners,” Rohde said. “With a warming climate and more drought on the horizon, California cannot afford any more overdraft.”
Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey estimated in a 2015 study that more than 1.8 cubic kilometers of groundwater had been depleted annually in the Central Valley because of agricultural pumping since 1962. That’s around 1.5 million acre-feet each year — nearly half the total annual water use in cities across Southern California, from Ventura County to Los Angeles to San Diego.
Since agricultural wells with modern pumps began drawing water from the aquifer in the early 20th century, the Central Valley has lost more than the total volume of water in Lake Tahoe; even wet years have only temporarily slowed the declines.
Since 1950, the average groundwater levels in the San Joaquin Valley in the spring have fallen from 68 feet to 172 feet below ground.
Half of that decline occurred in just the last decade.
As levels drop, water can fall below the reach of shallower wells, including those that supply homes. In 2020, the state received 29 complaints of dry household wells in the San Joaquin Valley.
In 2021, there have been 467 reports of dry wells.
But records show many more dry wells likely haven’t been reported. The Times found that local declines in groundwater this year sent water levels below the depth of more than 1,000 nearby residential wells in the San Joaquin Valley.
The state’s 2014 groundwater law was expected to eventually force growers to permanently leave dry a portion of the farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. Some researchers have estimated that “achieving groundwater sustainability” will require that more than half a million acres of farmland be taken out of production.
Still, conservation advocates say the state’s attempt at regulation under the law doesn’t go nearly far enough. Just this year, nearly 1,000 household wells have gone dry statewide. Local agencies whose job it is to develop groundwater plans have until 2040 to balance water use with supply and achieve sustainability.
The nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch said in a recent report that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act “falls far short of protecting California’s groundwater by delaying action until 2040 and prioritizing industry over the human right to water.”
The group criticized what it calls “corporate water misuse,” saying farms growing almonds and alfalfa use an estimated 3 trillion gallons of water per year and the crops are exported in large quantities.
Almond and pistachio acreage in Tulare County has nearly doubled since SGMA was enacted, according to the county agricultural commission. Those nut crops are generally more lucrative than row crops such as vegetables and cotton, and there’s been an increase in global demand. In addition, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that the number of small farms in the region has dropped, while there’s been an increase in bigger operations.
When the groundwater legislation was drafted in 2014, the long period of implementation until 2040 was one of the political compromises, as well as having local agencies take the lead in management decisions, said Peter Gleick, a climate and water scientist who co-founded the Pacific Institute.
“That’s the way politics works. But it opened the door to gaming the system and delay and, ultimately, potentially failure,” Gleick said.
The rise in well drilling is symptomatic of the problems with the law, he said, and a key test will be whether the state is willing to step in if local agencies fail to act. Getting groundwater use back into balance, Gleick said, will require major reductions in pumping, particularly in places like Tulare County.
The law is “not only not stopping groundwater overdraft yet. It’s permitting accelerated efforts to grab as much groundwater as farmers can, before limits are put into place,” Gleick said.
Gleick laid out his concerns bluntly on Twitter, comparing the situation to “telling bank robbers they really had to stop robbing the bank and they had ten years to get out before the police would move in.”
The first pass was a success. The four-story drilling rig had managed to bore more than 1,300 feet into the orchard’s soil, excavating a hole 14 ¾ inches in diameter.
The burly drillers in mud-caked boots and hard hats were digging a new well to replace a worn-out one. The plan, said drilling contractor Matthew Davis, had been to stay near the same depth as the original — about 900 feet. But he heard that other drillers in the area may have had better luck finding ample water by going deeper.
“There’s no value in leaving it in the ground,” Davis said of the groundwater. “Somebody’s going to want to get it out and do something with it.”
The finished well would irrigate two orchards separated by a narrow road near the Tulare County town of Terra Bella. On one side of the lane, orange trees thick with deep green foliage surrounded the clamorous, 60-ton drilling rig. On the other side, acres of spindly, young pistachio trees, years away from bearing fruit, marched into the distance.
The orchards are owned by Setton Farms, one of the biggest pistachio growers in the country. Mike Smith, grower services manager, said the company is “not drilling because we need more water. We just need the same, and it’ll be much more efficient than the old-type wells.”
Setton Farms uses a sophisticated irrigation system that saves water, Smith said, and recycles the water used at its pistachio processing plant. The company has also been buying surface water to replenish groundwater.
“We want water to go back in the ground,” Smith said. “We need to keep our aquifers from getting any lower.”
But on the second pass, disaster struck. Davis’ drilling crew was widening the hole to 24 inches, wider than 95% of ag wells in the county, when the rig broke down after just 200 feet. Two days would pass before the rig was fixed, precious time lost during the busiest drilling season in years.
In the end, Davis said, “we didn’t find anything that was worth taking the risk” of drilling so deep. The completed well is 880 feet, a little deeper than the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco is tall. And, he said, Setton decided to take the unused casing and have a second well drilled.
“We’re backed up, and there’s a huge demand out there,” said Davis, owner of Crown Drilling Services in nearby Exeter. “We’ve had a real struggle getting people hired this year. ... We’re up to five guys now, finally. But back in the last drought, we were running 24 hours a day and had close to 14 people.”
When there isn’t a drought, Davis said, he and his crew will drill between four and eight wells a year. This fall, he said, he has a waiting list of 24 wells to be drilled at a cost of about $60 a foot for a shallow domestic well and up to $500 or $600 a foot for an agricultural well with pricey stainless steel casing.
That is, “if I can get to them before somebody else, another contractor, gets to them,“ he said. “But as slow as we’re going, I’m probably going to lose some of that work just due to the fact that [farmers] need the water before I can get there.”
Clattering slowly down a row of grapevines, the massive harvester was the same bright blue as its driver’s turban. Harjinder Singh, a Sikh who once farmed in India’s Punjab region, has tilled these fertile acres with his extended family for more than two decades.
This year, though, is different for the 69-year-old, his two sons and his brother. Together they farm 500 acres of wine grapes and almonds in Earlimart, about 40 miles south of Visalia. Their crops depend on five deep wells. Their homes are supplied by a sixth.
In August, the valley suffered through nearly three weeks of triple-digit temperatures. That’s when the Singhs’ oldest well failed, forcing them to cut back on irrigation.
At 1,000 feet, the well is about as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall, deeper than 90% of ag wells in the county. But the water level had dropped — 110 feet in just the last nine years. And it took three weeks for workers to arrive and move the pump lower in the well. The lack of water left some vines dry and brown at harvest time, their grapes shriveled.
“Because of the lack of water, our yields are down,” said Tejpal Singh, who farms with his father and older brother.
The 33-year-old said the grape and almond crops were about 30% smaller than normal this year. And he’s worried about a future with elevated temperatures and an undependable water supply.
“The underground water just keeps going down,” Tejpal said. “Water is the beginning and the end of farming.”
A shallower well that supplies the family’s two houses and a rental home also began to fail. They noticed when the water flowing from faucets suddenly shrank to a trickle. That well is 355 feet deep, and they were pumping water from 340 feet when the pressure began to falter.
“We added another piece of pipe to get right to the bottom,” Tejpal said. “We’re right at the edge now. If it drops any more, we don’t have water. We’d have to drill a new well, a deeper one.”
Fixing the two wells cost the family about $40,000. They don’t know how much drilling a new well might cost, but it would likely be much more. They’re hoping for a wet winter so the water table rises.
The family has crop insurance, which they expect will provide some help, but not enough to make up for the meager harvest. And their costs to farm have only gone up: labor and fertilizer and fuel and newly imposed fees they’re required to pay to the Pixley Irrigation District based on the amount of groundwater they pump — $15,000 so far, which will likely crest $20,000 by year’s end.
The elder Singh loves farming and hopes to continue. But much will depend on crop prices.
“If the price goes down and everything goes up, up, up, then maybe the farmer will not survive,” Harjinder said. “Then we have to look at another business.”
After five months without regular running water, Vicki McDowell was adamant.
“I like the covered wagon days,” she said. “I didn’t want to live in them.”
But she didn’t have much choice. McDowell’s well went dry just weeks after her longtime boyfriend went into a nursing home. When he died in July of advanced cirrhosis of the liver, she was still without a functioning well.
Her landlord placed a small, yellow water tank outside the house. Through a haze of grief, which has yet to fully abate, McDowell lugged buckets of water to flush the toilet. She boiled it to wash her dishes. Sometimes she’d go to her mother’s house nearby to shower and wash clothing.
“One thing I miss is cooking and baking and cleaning,” she said. “Water, it’s like a gift. ... I’ve been through baby wipes. Oh, my gosh, hand sanitizer and my hands cracked.”
But on this Tuesday morning in October, McDowell’s long dry spell was about to end.
An organization called Self-Help Enterprises was installing a 2,500-gallon tank in front of McDowell’s house and hooking it up to her plumbing system. The group, which is funded by the state, will refill it each week. At no cost.
In the last month, Self-Help had installed 80 water tanks for families whose wells had run dry, said Marliez Diaz, the group’s water sustainability manager. Diaz said she hopes the pace of two to three tank installations per day would ease, “but, realistically, if we don’t get more rain, it will not slow down.”
McDowell’s tank was hooked up in about an hour. A water truck came and filled it up.
She reached for her kitchen faucet. Turned it on. And smiled.
“Ah, oh, my gosh,” she said, as warm water poured out. “This is like I won the lotto.”