When the Water Runs Out 

A package of bills now waiting for Governor Jerry Brown's signature would regulate the use of groundwater for the first time in California. But for some residents, it's too late.

When Loralyn Sanchez turned on her kitchen faucet one morning last February, chocolate-colored sludge came out. She went from room to room turning on all of her sinks, and each one sputtered out the same brown liquid. Pretty soon nothing but air was coming out of her water pipes, and she concluded that her well must be dry.

It has been more than six months, and Sanchez's family of eight is still waiting for water to return to their home in the San Joaquin Valley town of Monson, south of Fresno. "I'm not going to say we've gotten used to it, but it's an every day thing we deal with," she said in an interview last month. "Collecting water, washing the kids, brushing your teeth — it's hard."

About 1.5 million people statewide rely on private wells for drinking water, according to the nonprofit Water Systems Council, and 95 percent of the domestic water supply in the San Joaquin Valley comes from aquifers. But due to extreme drought and excessive groundwater pumping, the water tables in the southern Central Valley have receded at alarming rates, causing hundreds of wells to go dry and cutting off some areas of the state from running water.

Well diggers in the San Joaquin Valley now are in high demand as farmer's rush to access deeper groundwater. "For the first time in history, we have entire segments of communities losing access to their water supply," said Omar Carrillo, policy analyst with the Community Water Center in Visalia.

Although the drought is partially to blame for the water shortages, the problem has been decades in the making. The San Joaquin Valley's underground aquifers support millions of people and a multibillion-dollar agricultural industry, but the state doesn't monitor or regulate the resource. And for the past 150 years, groundwater basins have been considered a property right, meaning people can take whatever water they can pump from beneath their home or farm. "We have been using groundwater like an unlimited bank account," said Josue Medellin-Azuara, senior researcher at UC Davis' Center for Watershed Science.

The problem has worsened during the drought because farmers use groundwater to make up for water cutbacks from other sources. This year, as state and federal water deliveries have slowed to a trickle, San Joaquin Valley farmers are expected to increase the amount of water pumped from the ground by 4.1 million acre-feet — enough to put the entire state of Delaware under two and a half feet of water.

If present trends continue, the San Joaquin Valley's once abundant aquifers could become largely inaccessible within a generation due to the increased costs of pumping water from further depths, according to Thomas Harter, a hydrologist at UC Davis.

There is hope, though, that California will change course. The legislature recently passed a package of bills that, if signed by Governor Jerry Brown, would force local jurisdictions to properly manage distressed basins. Under the proposed laws, local agencies would take control of over-drafted aquifers and be required to develop management plans to ensure that groundwater is used for the benefit of the entire community. If local jurisdictions can't manage groundwater effectively, the state Water Resources Control Board would take over the resource to ensure it's used sustainably.

While all Central Valley lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — opposed the bills, many environmentalists, water districts, and farmers think the landmark legislation can help the state avert a possible catastrophe. But even if Governor Brown signs the bills, the dilemma won't be solved for some time. "Fixing the problem is going to require many, many years of correcting past actions," said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation.

And for the hundreds of people like Sanchez, the proposed regulations have come too late.

Those dependent on personal wells receive very little aid from the state when their water runs out, forcing them to develop patchwork systems to access water supplies. Some people run pipes into neighbors' wells to tap water. Others fill up jugs at large water tanks. Each week, Sanchez collects about 150 gallons of well water from a nearby family for cooking, bathing, and washing dishes. She spends roughly $150 a month on bottled water for drinking.

In order to have enough water to flush the toilets, her husband fills up gallon-containers at a nearby irrigation canal. "My kids know if they see a gallon and it's green it belongs in the toilet," Sanchez said, gesturing toward a scattering of containers filled with green-hued canal water in her front yard. The caution is warranted; the water is most likely laden with nitrates, phosphates, and other pesticides that could be harmful if ingested.

Meanwhile, the sprawling pistachio and grape orchards surrounding Sanchez's property continue to be irrigated three times a week. The farmers probably dug deeper wells to access the water, but for Sanchez that isn't an option. She's a renter, so even if she had the funds, it wouldn't make sense to sink tens of thousands of dollars into the property (domestic wells typically cost $20,000 to $30,000, and can run as much as $100,000 if deeper than 500 feet.) And even with a new well, Sanchez wouldn't be guaranteed a potable supply of water. When pumped from deeper depths, groundwater is more likely to be contaminated with salts, arsenic, chromium, and other naturally occurring toxins.

Because of the water shortage, Sanchez will be leaving Monson soon. She recently received a notice from Tulare County stating that her home was unsafe to occupy, due, in part, to its lack of running water. The only silver lining of the ordeal is that her family now understands the importance of conserving water. "My kids know now that you don't waste water for nothing," Sanchez said. "Short showers. Turn off the faucet when you brush the teeth. And don't take advantage of it, because it can go in an instant."

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