California Is Running Out Of Groundwater : Short Wave California is in the middle of a terrible drought. The rivers are running low, and most of its farmers are getting very little water this year from the state's reservoirs and canals. And yet, farming is going on as usual.

NPR food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles explains how farmers have been using wells and underground aquifers to water their crops. But that's all set to change. California is about to put dramatic limits on the amount of water farmers can pump from their wells, and people have some pretty strong feelings about it.

Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

The Great California Groundwater Grab

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

EMILY KWONG, HOST:

Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here with NPR's food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles. Hello, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hi, Emily. I have a riddle for you.

KWONG: Oh, fun, love riddles. Go on.

CHARLES: Tell me how these two facts can both be true. OK? Fact No. 1 - California is in the middle of a terrible drought. The rivers are running low. Most of its farmers are getting very little water this year from the state's reservoirs and canals.

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KATHY BRIANO: This year, there is no allotment because there is no water.

KWONG: Oof (ph) yeah. The drought in the West, it's gotten really bad.

CHARLES: OK. Fact No. 2 - on most of the state's farms, this is pretty much the typical scene.

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CANNON MICHAEL: We're harvesting watermelons and onions and carrots and garlic right now. And we've got hundreds of people out here on the farm and we've got trucks leaving.

CHARLES: Farming is just going on as usual, despite the drought. So this is the riddle. What makes this possible?

KWONG: Maybe the farmers found a secret source of water somewhere else.

CHARLES: Wait. Did you look ahead in the script?

KWONG: I wanted to know where this was all going.

CHARLES: OK, you are absolutely right. Farmers in California have turned to their wells. They have turned on the pumps, and they are pulling water out of underground aquifers. So much water, Emily.

KWONG: Right. So farmers, they've drilled wells on their property and they're pumping groundwater from them. How much water are we talking about, Dan?

CHARLES: Billions of tons, enough to cover 10,000 square miles with water a foot deep.

KWONG: Whoa.

CHARLES: Another fun fact, Emily, California grows something like 40% of the country's fruits and vegetables and nuts. So when you are in the produce section at the grocery store, you are looking at a lot of California aquifer water.

KWONG: Dang. And, Dan, can the farmers just do that, just pull up water from the ground?

CHARLES: Up to now, they have been able to, but there are consequences. The water table is dropping; shallower wells are going dry. People with the money to do it are having to dig deeper wells. In some places, the earth itself is sinking because of water getting pumped out from underneath it.

KWONG: Yikes. It's like everybody's competing, then, to grab as much of that underground water as they can.

CHARLES: Exactly. And it's been a competition with no rules until now because for the first time, California is getting ready to put dramatic limits on the amount of water that people can pump from their wells.

KWONG: Today on the show, it's the beginning of the end for California's great groundwater grab.

CHARLES: And some scary changes are coming probably for farms that grow a lot of food. As you can imagine, people have some pretty strong feelings about it.

KWONG: This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: OK, Dan, this groundwater pumping, I want to know how we got into this situation in California in the first place.

CHARLES: I talked to somebody who's watched it unfold over many years. Her name is Kathy Briano. She's a farmer in the big flat interior part of California that we call the Central Valley. It's hundreds of miles long. She's in Tulare County, south of Fresno.

BRIANO: OK, my family, we've been in the farming industry - we've been up here in the Valley since 1956.

CHARLES: That's right around the time when farming was expanding in this area. Previously, there were parts of the Central Valley that farmers hadn't really touched because it doesn't rain enough in summer to grow anything there.

BRIANO: Farming was limited here. You didn't have what we have here today. There was no water. They farmed as much as they could. Like I say, west of where our ranch is, from there to the highway, which is 10 miles, was tumbleweeds.

KWONG: Wow. So in this part of California, you really need a supply of water for irrigation to grow anything.

CHARLES: That's right. And in the 1940s, the '50s, '60s, the federal government and the state paid for huge dams and aqueducts. They brought in water from rivers hundreds of miles away.

BRIANO: They brought the water in and my goodness, corn and alfalfa and all that.

CHARLES: Those crops went to feed cows, big, huge dairy farms. Other farmers planted vineyards. In other parts of the valley, you've got onions and melons and carrots and tomatoes. More recently, there's been a big expansion of tree crops, like almonds.

KWONG: But all this water is coming from dams and reservoirs far away, right?

CHARLES: Right. And that was supposed to be the main water source. But farmers also needed a backup because there are some years when it just doesn't rain enough or snow enough. And this is happening more and more often because of climate change. And in those years, the government officials who manage those reservoirs, they say, no, you're not getting all that water this year, and that's when farmers turn to water from their wells instead.

KWONG: OK, so that's one reason why farmers started digging these wells, to have water during drought years.

CHARLES: Right. And some farms actually rely on their wells every year. And for a while, it seemed like they were just tapping into an inexhaustible source of water. The Central Valley aquifer is huge. It's like a lake under the ground. But when the droughts come, Emily, there's a writer named Mark Arax who has a memorable way of describing what happens. He grew up in Fresno in the middle of all this farming.

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MARK ARAX: Drought reveals the lie of a place.

CHARLES: What's the lie?

ARAX: Well, the lie is our ambition. We've taken on too much.

KWONG: Yeah, or I guess the lie is acting like we can just keep pumping water out of the aquifer forever.

CHARLES: Yeah. And in drought years, people pump an enormous amount of water. The water table beneath the surface drops. They drill even deeper wells, more than a thousand feet deep. They've extracted so much water that it even altered the valley's geology in some places.

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ARAX: And as you draw the water up and out of the earth, the earth itself then collapses and sinks. And we're not sinking by inches. We're sinking by feet.

KWONG: Wow. That is having a huge impact on that land, huh?

CHARLES: Yeah. Kathy Briano says she really noticed what was going on during the drought of 2014, 2015.

BRIANO: So everybody was pumping. You had to pump everything you needed and you just brought that groundwater down to nothing.

CHARLES: On her ranch, she says the water table dropped by 60 feet. The well that supplied water to her house went dry. The same thing happened to hundreds of people in a nearby town.

BRIANO: People were without water, and they had to bring water tanks in. And the county had to come and bring people - they had no water at all.

KWONG: And that's water for drinking and washing and flushing toilets. I mean, this isn't just affecting farmers. It's clearly affecting residents in the Central Valley.

CHARLES: Yeah, that's right. And cities there also rely on groundwater, and some people in their homes have their individual wells. Water is such a fundamental thing that we in the U.S. usually just take for granted. But it is devastating when it's gone. And the people who lost water in these places, many of them were living close to the edge already, you know, farmworkers, seasonal workers. So a lot of people organized to try to stop this overuse of groundwater, including Susana De Anda. She's executive director of Community Water Center. It's an organization that tries to help the Valley's vulnerable communities get access to enough safe water.

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SUSANA DE ANDA: When 90% of our valley residents rely on groundwater, we have to make sure that we're sharing that for all beneficial uses. And so that means that we should not overpump.

CHARLES: So in 2014, in the middle of that drought, she and a bunch of other people who were worried about the state of the aquifer got California to pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

KWONG: OK, tell me about this act. This is a big piece of legislation, right?

CHARLES: It's a big piece of legislation and a very big deal. It requires a real change, and it's getting phased in very slowly over the next two decades. This law says by 2040, overpumping has to end. You only get to pump as much water from the aquifer as the amount of water that filters back down into it from above, like from rainfall or rivers. State officials are coming up with exact numbers now for how much you're allowed to pump. And to monitor exactly how much groundwater each farmer's using, they're putting meters on wells, and some places are monitoring how much water they're using with satellites. You can actually do that.

KWONG: Wow. So they're serious about monitoring this. So how much of a cutback will that all mean?

CHARLES: The big impact will be in the San Joaquin Valley, which is a big part of the Central Valley, thousands of square miles between Sacramento in the north and Bakersfield. In a lot of that area, it'll probably mean cutting groundwater pumping by 70% or 80% compared with what they're doing this year.

KWONG: Yeah, this seems like a really big deal, Dan. Is this the end of California as the country's powerhouse of fruits, nuts and veggies?

CHARLES: Short answer, probably not. There will be a lot of land where there won't be crops grown anymore. The estimates vary as to how much, anywhere from 10% to 20% of the fields in that critical area, you know, the San Joaquin Valley. But, you know, that still leaves 80% or 90% of what California's growing now. And farmers probably will adapt. They'll concentrate on using their limited water to grow the most valuable crops. They'll also be able to buy and sell their groundwater allotment so they'll be able to shift the water to the places where it's worth the most.

KWONG: Yeah, I assume many farmers are fighting this, though.

CHARLES: You know, I heard a mix of feelings. So, for instance, I talked to one big-time farmer named Steve Jackson who said most of us farmers understand people have to do a better job of managing this incredibly valuable aquifer.

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STEVE JACKSON: It is a lifeline, but I think it's a lifeline that we've all taken for granted. And it's not infinite. And I think that's what's coming home to all of us.

CHARLES: And then there were others, including Kathy Briano, who just don't accept this idea that they have to take fertile Central Valley land out of production. Kathy doesn't so much object to the limits on groundwater pumping. She agrees that makes sense, you know, to protect the aquifer. But to make up for that, she wants the state to deliver more surface water from dams and reservoirs, drought or no drought.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIANO: My solution is you need to bring us more water.

KWONG: But where would California get that water if drought keeps putting strain on the rivers?

CHARLES: This is where you run into these two completely opposite views of who is taking water from whom, right? So some farmers like Kathy start with the fact that the aqueducts and the canals were built to bring water from the rivers to Central Valley farms to grow food. And now that they aren't getting that water because environmental regulators say the rivers can't spare it, they say the environmentalists are taking our water.

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BRIANO: We can't keep taking from the valley because we're taking away the production. And where can you grow everything we grow? Right here.

CHARLES: And then there are other people, including environmentalists, who say it's farmers who are taking the water, who've extracted so much water from the natural environment already that when droughts hit, they say the farmers definitely cannot take anymore.

KWONG: Yeah. This is messy, Dan. I mean, what's tough here is people always assuming the water would be there, but it's only through human intervention that farming started in the Central Valley in the first place, right?

CHARLES: Yeah, that's right. So right now, the situation is local groundwater managers are laying out what they call the glide path toward groundwater sustainability. Year by year, under the law, the limits will get tighter. Mark Arax, the writer, said something interesting. He said California's on the leading edge of dealing with climate change here, but fights over scarce natural resources could become more common in other places, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ARAX: How we deal with this becomes an example for the rest of America when it comes to their doorstep.

CHARLES: The California dream, he says, was born in the gold rush, you know, claiming nature, reshaping the land. And he says now we have to reinvent the dream.

KWONG: Yeah, and it's all happening in California. Well, thank you for bringing us the story from that place and look forward to hearing more about it as it all unfolds.

CHARLES: Thanks for having me on the show.

KWONG: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Berly McCoy. The audio engineer for this episode was Stacey Abbott. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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