California water wells are drying up in record numbers

For nearly four decades, water has flowed reliably from Fred and Robin Imfeld’s private well here in rural Tehama County, a region where thirsty orchards of walnuts, almonds, plums and olives stretch across thousands of acres.

But that reliable supply of household water began sputtering last year, and then stopped entirely this summer amid California’s driest three-year period.

Now the Imfelds and other residents here are scrambling to find alternative water sources, transporting supplies to fill giant, portable water tanks that have sprung up throughout the community.

“I call it a silent disaster because it’s not like hurricanes where everything gets blown over,” said Fred Imfeld, 70, of the well failures. “It’s just that one by one these wells just stay dry and if we have another hot summer like this year and last year, eh [another year with little] rain, it will double.”

Across California, record numbers of domestic wells are drying up due to severe drought and overpumping of underground aquifers. The crisis has hit rural farming areas particularly hard, leaving some families to fend for themselves or wait years for lasting solutions, while nonprofits, state water agencies and well drillers grapple with a growing backlog of requests for help.

This year nearly 1,400 domestic wells were reported dry – almost 40% increase over the same period last year and the highest annual number since 2013, when the California Department of Water Resources reported the Dry well reporting system. The actual number of dry wells is likely to be higher as reporting is voluntary.

Among the areas with the highest number of well failures were Fresno, Madera, Tulare, and Tehama counties – Central Valley regions, where scarcity of surface water has prompted growers to drill deeper and deeper irrigation wells.

“We’ll probably see more [dry wells] today than at any time in the past,” said Tami McVay, program director of Self-Help Enterprises, a community development organization that operates, among other things, a tank and tap water program for low-income families.

An oil rig digs a well in the dark.

A worker operates a well drilling rig in Fresno in August.

(Matt McClain/Washington Post)

Currently, about 1,600 households are receiving water assistance from Self-Help, and a few hundred more rely on municipal water tanks, she said.

Although California declared a decade ago that all residents have the right to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water, the number of dry wells in homes has continued to rise. At the same time, families without water are waiting longer for their wells to be drilled deeper or their homes connected to a public water system due to the growing backlog.

In parts of the Central Valley, some residents have been forced to live for more than five years with water being shipped to makeshift storage tanks, McVay said. “Tanks are not meant to be permanent. Unfortunately, people have to live like this now.”

Rural communities are particularly vulnerable to drought and water problems because they lack the finance, organization, and infrastructure of urban and suburban areas. They also suffer disproportionately from water affordability issues and well pollution. droughts and overpumping Groundwater levels are falling and pollutant concentrations are rising.

“The human right to water exists in California, and yet it is clearly being violated in many areas,” said Scott Jasechko, associate professor of hydrology at UC Santa Barbara. “And if the water table keeps falling, it’ll only get worse before it gets better.”

During wet years, most of the state’s water comes from surface sources such as rivers, lakes, and streams, while groundwater accounts for about 40% of the supply. However, during periods of drought, California’s groundwater dependency increases to 60% or more, increasing demand for aquifers. Those with shallow wells—mostly homeowners—usually get out of the water first when the water table drops.

A man examines a well.

Jesus Benitez sees his falling water pressure from his well at his home in Visalia in August.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

A pressure gauge.

A pressure gauge reads just a few pounds of pressure in a dry well in Visalia.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Currently about half of the 3,700 well monitored classified by the state as either below normal, well below normal, or at an all-time low.

“It just gives you a sense that we’re in unprecedented times of drought,” said Steven Springhorn, an engineering geologist and technical assistance manager at the DWR’s Office of Sustainable Groundwater Management.

According to government data, an estimated 15,000 household wells could dry up in five years if the drought continues. Fresno, Tulare, Madera, Tehama, and Sonoma counties have the highest concentration of endangered wells.

As the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act seeks to regulate water availability and help alleviate water scarcity in an increasingly arid California, thousands of people are at risk of falling through the cracks, experts say.

A Study 2020 Research commissioned by the nonprofit Water Foundation found that under the SGMA’s plans for the minimum water threshold in the San Joaquin Valley alone, between 4,000 and 12,000 wells will be partially or completely dry by 2040 — affecting approximately 46,000 to 127,000 Californians who may be affected lose access to their current water supply.

Drilling a deeper or new well does not come cheap. On average, replacing a well can cost around $55,000 — well beyond the reach of already disadvantaged families.

“Wells are expensive, and their cost is generally calculated per foot,” said Justin Jenson, assistant director of public works and water resources for Tehama County. “People often make the choice between what they can afford and what is sustainable in the long term.”

With California forecast to face a fourth year of drought, groundwater pumping is likely to increase, particularly in agriculture.

“Everyone took care of what little water there was,” said Ari Neumann, director of community and environmental services at Rural Community Assistance Corporation. “And whoever has the deepest well gets the water.”

As global warming drives increasing dehydration in the American Southwest, California is struggling to overhaul its increasingly aging water infrastructure.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed one supreme command is designed to protect Californians who depend on groundwater for their daily needs. The arrangement will require local well permits to align with groundwater sustainability before being approved.

And last month, DWR officials approved a new round of funding for the Drought relief program for small communities. Approximately $44 million will be distributed to 23 projects in Tehama, Fresno and other counties prone to water supply problems for new wells, water supply lines, more storage infrastructure and to support consolidation to increase water supply reliability.

But adjustment will take time, officials say.

“There has to be some level of tolerance for taking the time to fix these issues,” Jenson said. “Immediate response can only go so far as to buy time, but ultimately we need to build in infrastructure that will solve these problems, and that could take 10 to 20 years. Those are really the keys to actually solving the problem rather than curing it.”

That is little consolation for those who have lost water.

On a recent afternoon, Fred Imfeld loaded the back of his truck with a galaxy of containers — one- and five-gallon jugs, empty paint cans, Clorox and cat litter containers — and drove to a friend’s house a few miles away to fill them up with Water.

“You’ll definitely appreciate water if you do this,” Fred said as he opened the plastic jugs. “That’s a pretty crude way of getting water.”

Since her death, the Imfelds have been hauling about 100 gallons a week, sometimes more to meet their daily needs. They use the water for flushing toilets, bathing and washing dishes, but also for their dogs, goats and chickens. They’ve also stopped maintaining their pool and have watched their lawns, bamboo thickets and redwood trees turn to rust tones.

It’s a stark contrast to the lush green groves of walnut, almond, and pistachio along Highway 99 to the north.

“I know we’re in a drought, but if you start pumping huge amounts of water, someone somewhere gets hurt,” Imfeld said.

Times staffer Ian James contributed to this report. California water wells are drying up in record numbers

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