Oct 27, 2014
About two dozen small, mostly impoverished rural communities scattered throughout California’s rich farmlands are either out of water or close to it, as their sources of water, such as wells, streams and ditches dry up. As a result, thousands of households cannot flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for a bottle or bucket. Families have to spend hundreds of dollars to wash their clothes at the laundromat and on paper goods to avoid washing dishes.
This is not because of the three-year drought. Big corporate farms right next door are still using vast amounts of water. These farms get little rain – even in the good years. But they usually get plentiful water at a very low price from an enormous infrastructure of dams, aqueducts and canals run by both the federal and state governments – all paid for by taxpayers and individual ratepayers in the cities.
Because of the drought, the federal and state water projects have been forced to reduce their water deliveries to the big farms. To make up the difference, the big farms have been pumping record amounts of precious water from underground aquifers. They use the latest technology that allows them to drill wells faster and deeper. They also draw water from not only under their own land, but from miles around. In fact, the farms are in competition with each other to pump as much water as quickly as possible in a perverse race to the bottom.
There are terrible consequences to this overpumping. It is largely responsible for lowering the water table, sometimes by thousands of feet. That’s why river flows are much lower, and the shallow wells that individual households and communities depend on are exhausted.
Overpumping by big farmers in California is an age-old problem. Decades ago, overpumping sunk half of the entire San Joaquin Valley, in one area by as much as 28 feet, as the underground layers of porous rock that used to hold water compacted, stacking like pancakes. Today vast new areas of California farmland are subsiding – that is, slowly collapsing – some by almost a foot each year, damaging building foundations, bridges, canals and roads.
Of course, these structures can be repaired. But what cannot be repaired is the collapsed underground porous rock, unable to hold water.
In their rush for short-term profit, the big companies that own the farms are turning the drought into a much bigger disaster.