Education opportunity for domestic well owners

Nov. 14, 2018
Education opportunity for domestic well owners….
The cooperative is developing a twelve month program aimed at educating those who want to protect their right to 2 AC feet of water and maintain their rural lifestyle.
It’s not a secret that the emphasis of government and developers to build out Pahrump on the back’s of our legal domestic water right to use up to 2 acre feet of water for our livestock, landscaping, gardens and etc.
We will be dedicating time during each monthly meeting to educate those in attendance to the point that they can discuss and credibly lobby against any attacks on their rights.
Water is a precious commodity in the world and due to mis-management of this resource by Nye county officials and the state engineer’s office, Pahrump was over allocated by tens of thousands of water rights. The former farmers were allowed to convert agriculture water rights for domestic use. This abomination has severely threatened the rural lifestyle and character of Pahrump. The assault has continued due to apathy of the residents and mis-information campaigns.
Domestic well owners are not the problem in Nevada, their rights equal about 40,000 acre feet of water in total at present. This is a drop in the bucket when considering the entire inventory of ground water in Nevada. With over 11,000 domestic wells in Pahrump the township has over 50% of all state domestic wells. With limited yearly recharge of the aquifer, a stress has been put on domestic wells.
Armed with the proper knowledge and resource our members going forward will be the driving force for a solution in the future, no longer will we be the victims when water plans are considered by government.

Nevada State Engineer amended order 1293A

Announcement from the Office of the Nevada State Engineer regarding Amended Order 1293A

The State Engineer has amended Order #1293, which prohibits the drilling of new domestic wells in Pahrump, Nevada, without the acquisition and relinquishment of 2.0 acre-feet of water rights. Amended Order #1293A, provides two exemptions to Order #1293:  There were 21 notices of intent to drill cards filed in the three day period leading up to the issuance of Order #1293 that were denied. The amended order allows those 21 to drill domestic wells without relinquishing 2.0 acre-feet. Additionally, anyone who filed for a building permit on a parcel that is zoned for a domestic well before the issuance of Order #1293 would also be able to drill a domestic well, with access to 2.0 acre-feet. More info at

Southwest States Release Colorado River Drought Plan

After more than three years of negotiations, Southwest water managers this week released the first public draft of their short-term plan to manage the Colorado River as overuse and drought continue to strain a water supply that supports 40 million people from Wyoming to Nevada.

The complex plan is meant to defer more severe shortage conditions on the river as negotiators in the seven-state Colorado River Basin work out an even more complex long-term framework for a century-old system challenged by higher temperatures and changes in precipitation.

Infighting and a wet start to 2017 had put the plans on hold, but discussions resumed again this year with abysmal snowpack across the basin and forecasts of a shortage as early as 2020 led federal water managers at the Bureau of Reclamation to call for a plan by the end of the year.

Water managers said releasing the draft “Drought Contingency Plan” on Wednesday was a milestone, particularly after a spring of public sparringbetween different factions on the river.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s board will consider the plan and vote on it next month.

The plan asks Colorado River water users to make cuts to their supply in an effort to store more water in reservoirs like Lake Mead, the country’s largest storage pool and a symbol of drought across the West. The reservoir, impounded behind the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas, is lined by an eerie bathtub ring that shows where the water line used to be, about 140 feet higher.

“I think it shows that we are on track to try to get [a drought plan] done by the end of the year,” said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “The [drought plan] is an incredibly important set of documents. It demonstrates that the seven states are still capable of coming together and managing this river in the case of changing conditions.”

No easy way to conserve

During a prolonged drought, the plan requires water users to double down on voluntary cuts as a way to keep more water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the system’s second-largest reservoir upstream of Lake Mead. If the reservoirs dry up, the seven states risk running afoul of multiple laws that govern the river — the incentive driving everyone to come up with a proactive plan.

If Lake Mead drops another 55 feet, the federal government could throw out the playbook and force even deeper cuts. Most water users want to avoid the uncertainty that comes with that.

“We need to be proactive,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan, a wholesale water seller for Southern California cities. “We feel it is better to control our own fate.”

If Lake Powell drops even lower, Glen Canyon Dam will produce less hydropower, the revenue of which supports operations and endangered species compliance. More importantly, low levels at Lake Powell put the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) in a precarious long-term position. The river’s upper division is required to send a certain amount of water from Powell to Lake Mead every year to fulfill their obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. If they don’t, downstream users in the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada) can force the Upper Basin to curtail water use. This tool is referred to as a “Compact Call.”

Without steps like the drought plan, “the system is going to crash,” said Andy Mueller, who runs the Colorado River District, which focuses on protecting river water in Western Colorado.

“What that means up here is we think it’s possible we will get a call,” he said.

But as Mueller also concedes, the devil is in the details. Asking users to conserve more water — and in turn, use less — is a challenging, expensive, and often unpopular proposition. Now that a public draft of the plan is out in public, water districts across the basin must review the plans and sign off on them. Even though Nevada is ready to sign off on the plan and has been ready for more than a year, other water users still have concerns about the conservation measures.

In Arizona, where the cuts would be steepest, state officials are still working on an intra-state agreement that would be palatable for its state legislature, which must approve the plan. To get there, Arizona officials are looking to find ways to mitigate cuts that would disproportionately fall on low-priority agricultural users in Pinal County outside of Phoenix. Paul Orme, a lawyer for the farming community, said that Arizona officials presented a mitigation plan on Wednesday, but it faded corners from other water users — cities and tribes — that would have to sacrifice their water.

“I can’t really answer your question: Where do we go from there?” said Orme.

But he added that Pinal County farmers have significant leverage in the state’s legislature.

“There are folks in the Arizona legislature who are very much interested in seeing Pinal County agriculture survive,” Orme said.

California is also working toward an intra-state agreement between the Metropolitan Water District  and agricultural users over how the cuts would work. Kightlinger said there had been some back-and-forth over what percentage Metropolitan and each agricultural district would conserve to boost Lake Mead’s elevation, but the parties are close to a tentative agreement.

“There’s a high likelihood we are going to complete this,” he said.

There are still key details to work out in Colorado too. Although Mueller agrees with the concept of sending more water to Lake Powell, he said conservation should not fall disproportionately on the backs of farms, ranches and orchards in Western Colorado. Mueller said he wants to see a commitment from cities that they contribute an equal amount to boost reservoir levels at Powell.

“[Conservation] water should come equally from both,” he said.

The arid state’s counterintuitive role

Although Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River, Entsminger said the utility will be able to easily absorb the cuts, which kick in once the lake dips below a certain elevation. The region, Entsminger argues, has a more secure supply than other water users because it can access water through a pumping system, even if the lake falls so low that no water can be delivered out of the Hoover Dam to Arizona or California.

In drought negotiations, that puts Nevada in a unique situation. Even though it is the most arid state in the country’s most arid region, it has less to lose than others. In a recent podcast with The Nevada Independent,Entsminger likened the state’s position to that of Switzerland.

In these negotiations, Entsminger said Nevada helped bridge a divide between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin. The agreement Nevada helped hammer out is a key part of the drought plan. It allows states like Colorado to “bank” conserved water in Lake Powell without sending it to Lake Mead under the reservoir’s current operating rules; it avoids the weird situation in which the benefit of the Upper Basin’s conserved water is enjoyed by the Lower Basin.

That was at the crux of a disagreement earlier this year, when the Upper Basin states released a letter to the Central Arizona Project, which controls Arizona’s Colorado River canal, of placing water orders to manipulate in such a way that they could take more water from Lake Powell.

“We saw that the water that was being saved was pulled down the river by convenient timing of orders from the Central Arizona Project,” Mueller said. “We weren’t very happy with that.”

The recent deal, Entsminger said, could go a long way in improving the historically tense relationship between an Upper Basin that has the right to use more water than it does and a Lower Basin that operates with a “structural deficit,” using more water than it takes each year.

“It’s very big from an Upper Basin, Lower Basin relationship perspective that we are going to set aside some of the dogma of the river,” Entsminger said during an interview this week.

James Eklund, Colorado’s chief negotiator in the drought talks, said Entsminger played a helpful role in bringing all of the various interests together to hammer out a deal.

“He’s been a calm voice in the discussions,” he said.

But creating a “bank” in the Upper Basin comes with its own legal and funding challenges. Who pays to incentivize conservation? Who gets title to the conserved water? How do you account for it? And how do you shepherd it to Lake Powell without other users diverting it along the way?

“Our position has been cautious optimism,” said Kightlinger, who represents Southern California users. “We’ve given them [a go-ahead] on the construct but we really want to see the details.”

On second thought, it’s not “drought plan”

How complicated is all of this?

The drought plan is so complex and involves so many side agreements that it has come to mean something different to different groups. Almost everyone agrees that it is a short-term fix to a long-term problem — climate change and overuse mean there is less water to go around.

Water managers are not even sure what to call it.

It’s about drought, yes. But some take issue with that word because it suggests that the system will recover from the conditions that have drawn down Lake Mead to its lowest elevation since it was fully filled. Eklund said that a more suitable name could be the “Climate Contingency Plan.”

“It gets away from the notion that we are going to get bailed out by the weather,” he said.

Eric Kuhn, a former general manager of the Colorado River District who is working on a book about the history of Colorado River hydrology, agreed that using the term “drought” is flawed.

He asked: “Is this a Drought Contingency Plan or is this thing what we need to do for the rest of our lives? I personally think it’s kind of a joke to call it a Drought Contingency Plan.”

In many ways, the drought plan is a first step. For conservation groups, it is a way to create the reliability needed to tackle other important issues, like habitat and the general health of the river.

“Reliability of the Colorado River water supply is important both to people and to nature,” said Jennifer Pitt, who works on river issues for the Audubon Society. “We are very encouraged to see the progress that is being made toward adopting this [plan] and we know that is not the end of the story. That’s the beginning of the story. There’s more work to do.”

For others, it’s a prelude to future negotiations. Once the conservation plan is finalized, the conversation will shift to long-term planning. Right now, water managers are operating under a set of guidelines completed in 2007. Those expire in 2026 but negotiations for new guidelines begin in 2020. The plans will likely go through an extensive environmental review. The purpose of the drought plan, Entsminger and others said, is to ensure water users can get to 2026 without severe shortages.

“The question is what if this drought continues,” Entsminger said. “What if climate change makes the hydrology worse than anything we’ve seen or modeled? Then what does the next iteration of Colorado River management look like?”

Artificial Nucleation of Clouds Planned For Spring Mountains

NOTICE OF INTENT TO MODIFY NATURAL PRECIPITATION Jan 8, 2018 NOTICE IS GIVEN THAT the Board of Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education on behalf of the Desert Research Institute, will conduct a program of weather modification by artificial nucleation of clouds with silver iodide and other appropriate nucleating agents to increase useful precipitation at certain locations in the Spring Mountains. The director who will supervise the proposed project is Frank McDonough, Associate Research Scientist, of the Desert Research Institute. The state of Nevada is funding this project. The area in which the ground based equipment will be operated is east of the city of Pahrump, NV between Highway 160 and Mt Charleston peak. The target area will be the Lee Canyon and Kyle Canyon drainages and we will be looking to increase groundw-ater reserves. The target area and the areas immediately adjacent are in the mountainous western regions of Clark County of Nevada. The project will be starting during the 2018-2019 winter season from about 1 February through 30 April with possible extensions through 15 May, and the project is projected to continue annually. A public meeting will be scheduled and a description of the project and mitigation measures of the proposed project to reduce any significant adverse environmental impacts may be viewed by public agencies and the general public. The meeting will be held February 2 from 2-4 pm at the Las Vegas Centennial Hills Library 6711 N Buffalo Dr, Las Vegas, NV 89131. Any comments related to the proposed project please contact: Jeffrey Dean, 5276 Texas Ave., Reno, Nv 89506. 775-677-3141. Frank McDonough, Program Director of the Nevada State Cloud Seeding Program, Desert Research Institute, 2215 Raggio Parkway, Reno, NV 89512, Tel: (775) 674 7140; Fax: (775) 674 7007. PUBLISH: Jan. 12, 19, 26, 2018.

Michigan scrambles to address chemical contaminants in water

Michigan scrambles to address chemical contaminants in water

David Eggert, Associated Press

Associated Press
Michigan scrambles to address chemical contaminants in water

FILE- In this Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017 file photo, a “No trespassing” sign is displayed at an old tannery waste dump used by Wolverine World Wide in Belmont, Mich. Some private wells in the area have tested positive for elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS, also called perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. Michigan, where the large city of Flint continues to recover from a lead-tainted water supply, is now racing to combat a new threat to tap water at sites across the state: chemicals long used in firefighting, waterproofing, carpeting and other products. (Neil Blake /The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — While the city of Flint still recovers from a lead-tainted water crisis, Michigan is scrambling to combat potential health risks in other tap water that stem from chemicals long used in firefighting, waterproofing, carpeting and other products.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been detected at military bases, water treatment plants and, most recently, an old industrial dump site for footwear company Wolverine World Wide. The contaminants, classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “emerging” nationally, have sparked enough concern that Gov. Rick Snyder created a state response team and approved $23 million in emergency spending.

The chemicals do not break down easily and can migrate from soil to groundwater. They were used in scores of U.S. industrial applications and have been detected in human and animal blood around the globe. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says scientists are uncertain about how they affect human health at exposure levels typically found in food and water. But some studies suggest the chemicals might affect fetal development, disrupt hormonal functions, damage fertility and immune systems, and boost the risk of cancer.

At least 1,000 homes with private wells in the Plainfield Township area north of Grand Rapids — near where Wolverine dumped hazardous waste decades ago — have been tested for PFAS contamination in recent months.

Cody Angell, 28, who lives in the area, said he has had “sleepless nights,” even though his home is on the local water system that has been deemed safe. He’s concerned because the chemicals have been discovered in the municipal supply, and Plainfield Township for years pulled water from backup wells that have tested positive for the substances. He wonders if PFAS contamination caused his mother’s thyroid disease.

Angell said he lacks confidence in state regulators, pointing to their failures that led to Flint’s crisis. Environmental activist and legal consultant Erin Brockovich recently met with area residents, urging them to join a class-action lawsuit that alleges Wolverine illegally disposed of PFAS from Minnesota-based 3M’s Scotchgard product in the area. The suit seeks financial damages and steps such as targeted, more frequent medical testing.

Another lawsuit alleges that a family of four living near Wolverine’s unlined tannery waste dump drank highly contaminated well water for 17 years, causing the father to develop colon cancer, the mother to have a miscarriage and one of their children to develop a rare bone cancer.

The chemicals have been identified at 28 sites in 14 Michigan communities. Nearly half are on or near military installations, where the source is believed to be firefighting foam.

The $23 million will be used to hire new state employees to sample and analyze well water, buy lab equipment and help public health departments with unexpected response costs. Samples have been sent to California because no Michigan labs can test for the chemicals; state officials want quicker results.

“People are starting to get an understanding of a whole class of chemicals that … are in so many things. How much of that is getting into our systems? I don’t think people really know,” said state Rep. Chris Afendoulis, a Republican whose district includes the Wolverine dump area. He warned it could become “a nationwide problem.”

Of about 1,050 homes tested in neighborhoods north of Grand Rapids, 74 had PFAS levels above 70 parts per trillion — the U.S. government’s combined health advisory level for two PFAS in drinking water, set in 2016. Some houses had concentrations measuring hundreds of times higher than the lifetime advisory level. Results are not back yet for every home. Wolverine has provided affected residents with bottled water and whole-house filters and, at the state’s request, is investigating 20 reports of discarded barrels or leather scraps at five sites.

For now, the Snyder administration and majority Republicans in the Legislature are comfortable with the 70 parts per trillion standard — a non-enforceable and unregulated limit unlike the federal restrictions on other contaminants such as lead, asbestos and mercury.

“It is largely used for trying to communicate to the public the point at which if you’re below that, we don’t have public health concern. When you get above that, then that is when we start to say there are some people who may be at risk of harm from a lifetime of drinking levels above 70,” said Kory Groetsch, environmental health director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “I like to think of it as a speed limit. If you’re doing 58 in a 55, your chance of anything bad is very small. If you’re doing 95 in a 55, your chance of something going wrong is quite high.”

Michigan Democrats are proposing legislation to establish a 5 parts per trillion limit, which would be the country’s toughest and follow states such as New Jersey, Minnesota and Vermont that have imposed stricter guidelines. They also are calling for legislative oversight hearings to investigate whether Wolverine and the state moved too slowly to protect people. On its website, Wolverine calls the federal advisory level “very conservative” and says there is no human study proving PFAS exposure causes illness.

Still, the EPA recently announced a “cross-agency effort” to address PFAS contamination nationwide, saying it will identify near-term actions to help communities, enhance coordination, boost research and expand communication about health risks. Snyder, a Republican, said the state is building a “good working relationship” with the EPA, but — echoing criticism from both sides of the aisle in Congress — said he wants a “better response” from the Defense Department.

The former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan has been on officials’ radar for some time. While PFAS levels in samples from private residential wells nearby were not higher than the federal advisory level, the state urged people to not use their water for drinking or cooking because of uncertainty about the duration or amount of previous exposure and other concerns.

“We’re at this point in dialogue with different branches of military, and it’d be good if we could get the Department of Defense to figure out the best way to respond and partner with us on helping address this issue,” Snyder said.


Land Patents, What Is A Land Patent


Posted by Team – 10 April, 2013

Land patentFor many landowners, land patents are a vaguely defined or even foreign concept. These days, the vast majority of regular Americans own their homes or properties through a deed or title issued by their local jurisdiction. In exchange, they pay property taxes, respect local building codes, follow local laws, and generally fulfill the roles and duties of strait-laced citizens.

Holders of land patents may enjoy additional privileges to which regular deed-holders aren’t entitled. In laymen’s terms, land patents take land ownership to the next level. Indeed, these legal designations may provide their holders with certain privileges that aren’t typically associated with land ownership in the United States. What follows is a basic outline of the legal theory that underlies land patents.

Origins of Land Patents

The concept of the land patent originated in the early days of the American Republic. As has been well documented, the United States acquired its lands by entering into various treaties with its former owners. While it’s perfectly reasonable to pass judgment on the means by which early American governments obtained much of the country’s area, the fact remains that the treaties that established those governments’ claims to the land are technically in force to this day.

As the United States grew, the General Land Office was tasked with managing and disbursing the country’s treaty-acquired lands. By issuing land patents to landowners and settlers who applied for them, the office essentially transferred the rights conferred by the treaty to these individuals. These rights were held in perpetuity and said to take precedence over any subsequent legal strictures, including state laws and constitutional clauses.

Basic Principles

Over time, the General Land Office sank into obscurity and was replaced by the Bureau of Land Management. Today, the BLM continues to issue land patents to owner-occupants and absentee landowners for a variety of reasons. In most cases, these patents are issued to protect landowners’ mineral and drilling rights from state governments and resource extraction firms.

It’s important to reiterate that state constitutions and statutes are generally deemed to be subordinate to federal land patents. The reason for this is simple: As a condition of admittance to the Union, 49 out of 50 states signed so-called “enabling acts” that formally ceded their lands to the federal government. Since the Republic of Texas never officially ceded its lands to the U.S. government during the annexation process, it stands as the one “outlier” state. Accordingly, it’s questionable whether federal land patents have supremacy over patents and deeds that the government in Austin issues.

Legal Precedents

Over the years, various parties have charged that land patents are archaic instruments that can be abused by unscrupulous landowners and corporations. The legal spats that have arisen from these charges have produced a sizable body of legal precedence that supports the basic concept of land patents. Key court decisions include:

In each of these cases, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the supremacy of federal property rights over local and state laws. This is the nub of the legal theory of land patents.

Benefits and Inherent Value

For the private citizens known as freeholders, land patents offer several clear benefits. They may free landowners from responsibility for honoring liens on their property, including those imposed by the state for unpaid taxes. Further, they may permit their holders to retain the title to their lands in the face of state threats of seizure or eviction. They can also be transferred easily by means of inheritance. Perhaps most importantly, land patents permit their holders to dispose with their land as they see fit. This attribute can be particularly useful during disputes over mineral and drilling rights.

Still curious? You’re in luck! In our next post, we’ll cover the ways to obtain a federal land patent.

It’s Election Time for the Cooperative

It is Election Time!

The following individuals presently hold these positions:

President –John F. Bosta

Vice-President— Wade Hinden

Secretary— Charlotte LeVar / Treasurer—Christina Stern

Members at Large—Dwight Lilly

Members at Large—Larry Blatchford

It is time to place your name on the ballot by the end of November 30th, 2017 for any of the following positions for 2018 if you are interested in running for the position:

If you are interested in running for one of the above positions please add your name next to individual name that has already holds the position and is re-running for that position by November 30th, 2017.

President — John Bosta — Add your name

Vice-President — Wade Hinden — Add your name

Secretary — Charlotte LeVar — Add your name

Treasurer —Christina Stern — Add your name

Member at Large — Dwight Lilly — Add your name

Member at Large — Add your name

Your name will be also be placed on the ballot for that position that will be sent to mailing address of each registered member in December with an self addressed envelope, you will need to place a stamp on the self addressed envelope and returned your ballot by mail on or before January 31st, 2018.

The ballots will be opened and counted during the February 15th, 2018 meeting.

We also need Coop members to volunteer to be ahead of the following committees:

Well Testing Committee —

Sign Committee —

Membership Committee —

Dry Wells And Sinking Ground As State Struggles With Groundwater Crisis: Don’t Let This Be Pahrump’s Future — The Most Important Article You May Ever Read

California in overdraft


PASO ROBLES, California – Two decades ago, the rolling hills of Paso Robles were mostly covered with golden grass and oak trees. Now the hills and valleys are blanketed with more than 32,000 acres of grapevines.

Surging demand for wine has brought an explosion of vineyards, and along with it heavy pumping of groundwater. With the water table dropping, many people have had to cope as their taps have sputtered and their wells have gone dry.

Drilling a new well can cost $30,000 or more, and for Juan Gavilanes and his family, that’s out of reach. Instead, they’re relying on a neighbor who lets them use his well, and they bring water to their house through a hose.

Standing in his parched yard, Gavilanes said life has changed radically. He let his vegetable garden die. His family uses a coin laundry. They take quick showers and eat on paper plates. He said it’s quite clear where their water has gone and why their well is empty.


The vineyards are killing us,” said Gavilanes, a construction worker. “That’s the problem, you know. They suck up all the water.”

Groundwater levels have also been falling miles away, beneath the ranch of Kim Routh, who saw one of her wells dry up, and beneath the stables of Laurie Gage, whose horse-boarding farm relies on a well that can no longer pump as much anymore.

“I’m frightened, have been for a long time,” Gage said, a hand resting on a steel corral. “I can point to three wells that have gone dry, and a fourth right down the road.”

California’s severe drought has multiplied the stresses on aquifers across the state, sending groundwater levels to record lows. But it’s an issue that began long before the drought. For decades, through wet and dry periods, groundwater has been overpumped and progressively depleted.

The Central Valley alone is estimated to have lost more than 150 cubic kilometers of groundwater, roughly the amount of water in Lake Tahoe. Nearly two-thirds of that has been pumped out since 1960 as wells have proliferated. And the pace of depletion has been accelerating.

Even if El Niño brings a wet winter, it won’t be enough to refill California’s badly depleted aquifers. They’ve been drawn down so far that if pumping were suddenly cut back, the state would still need many years of above-normal rainfall and snows for a significant turnaround.

So much water has been pumped from the aquifer in the Central Valley that the underground spaces in layers of clay and rock have been collapsing, leaving the land surface permanently altered. Scientists have determined the ground is sinking faster than ever before, in some areas by up to 13 inches over just eight months. That settling has buckled the concrete lining of canals and damaged roads and bridges.

As the aquifers have receded, rural homeowners have been the first to run out. The state has tallied reports of more than 3,400 households out of water during the past two years, mostly with dry wells. Some of those homeowners have voiced resentment, blaming surrounding farmers with deeper wells for causing their predicament.

But along with the finger-pointing has come growing discussion about a fundamental imbalance: There are simply too many demands drawing on California’s limited supply of water.

“We’re running up against what I call ‘peak water’ limits,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an organization based in Oakland that focuses on water issues. “There’s no longer enough water to do everything that we want to do. We can no longer grow as much food as we’re growing, as inefficiently as we’re growing it. We can no longer ignore the fact that some of our agricultural practices are leading to problems.”

When the communities’ water sources suffer as a result, he said, “that’s a problem of equity. It’s a problem of power and politics. It’s a problem of wealth.”

Farmers have been spending heavily to drill new wells hundreds of feet down – even up to 2,000 feet deep in places – to reach water.

Property owners in California have long been entitled to draw as much water from their wells as they wish. In many areas, that lack of regulation has led to an unbridled free-for-all of pumping.

Trying to bring the situation under control, Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which puts local agencies in charge of managing groundwater and also gives the state new authority to step in when necessary to keep aquifers from falling further.

State officials have drawn up a list of 21 groundwater basins considered to be in “critical overdraft” and have laid out a timeline of requirements. By mid-2017, local “groundwater sustainability agencies” need to be formed. By 2020, basins that are in “critical overdraft” will be required to adopt 20-year plans for achieving sustainable management – defined as managing groundwater in ways that avoid problems such as chronic declines or saltwater intrusion.

Other high- or medium-priority groundwater basins will have until 2022 to have their groundwater plans in motion.

In the meantime, pumping has rolled along largely unchecked. Despite the drought, California farm revenues have risen to record highs in the past few years, pushing gross farming income to $56.9 billion in 2014. And it’s been possible precisely because farmers have been leaning more than ever on the declining supply of groundwater.

“That gives them a short-term benefit, but the long-term consequences of that are going to be very severe, and we can’t do that forever,” Gleick said. “We have to ultimately think about how to bring the system back into balance.”

Water for wine

In 1983, the Paso Robles area had a total of 17 wineries and about 5,000 acres of vineyards. By 1995, the number of wineries had grown to 29. Then the Central Coast suddenly became trendy as a winemaking region, and the number of wineries increased to more than 200.

That coincided with the expansion of the wine business across California, in places from Napa Valley and Sonoma County to Lodi and Temecula. The total number of licensed wineries in the state has grown from 944 in 1995 to 4,285 in 2014.

Winemakers and investors poured into Paso Robles partly for its climate – the sunny days, afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean, and cool nights. They planted many varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, as well as others such as Mourvèdre, Grenache and Petit Verdot. Some vineyards imported vines from France.

As the business took off, it brought wine-tasting tours and lifted the economy of a town where businesses had been boarded up. Then came the declines in groundwater levels.

On her horse farm, Gage said the water level in her well has fallen about 130 feet since she moved to the area 27 years ago. When she last checked, the water level was 220 feet underground. In the past seven years, it has dropped at least 70 feet.

Her well now runs intermittently. After about 15 minutes of use, the pump automatically shuts down, and it only restarts an hour later once enough water has seeped back into the well.

In 2013, as dozens of homeowners’ wells were failing, concerned residents formed a group called PRO Water Equity and began advocating for changes to protect the water supply. At first, they were sharply at odds with wine grape growers, and their disagreements fed distrust.

Reacting to the complaints of many dry wells, San Luis Obispo County supervisors passed an emergency ordinance in August 2013 that for a two-year period barred new or expanded vineyards in the Paso Robles basin unless the additional water use could be offset with reductions elsewhere.

Gage, who is vice president of PRO Water Equity, said the contentious atmosphere changed after county supervisor Frank Mecham offered an idea to her group and the opposing side, a group of growers known as the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions. He suggested they get together to search for common ground, and after a series of meetings they struck a compromise: a proposal to create a new water district to manage the groundwater basin, with a board that would include representatives of large-, medium- and small-sized landowners, as well as members elected by all voters.

“I’ve come to a much different understanding and appreciation of those guys as people,” Gage said. “There is at least a fairly large group of wine grape growers who have come to the realization that unless we do something smart with our water soon, they’re going to be in a world of hurt in terms of their investment. They’ve got huge investments in these areas, just gigantic, and they will lose all of that if the water goes away.”

Nearby at Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery in Templeton, owner Dana Merrill said he agrees the area should have its own district to start managing groundwater.

The water levels in his vineyard’s wells have been dropping. But Merrill, a 7th generation farmer and Californian, said he believes someday the wine country of Paso Robles can be as valuable as the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.

“What is the one thing that could derail that? Running out of water,” he said. “To me, how can you take a chance on screwing this up?”

Driving to the top of a hill, he looked out over rows of his grapevines and other vineyards in the valley below.

“I think we should do something about it,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘God, maybe I should have done something about that.’ Yeah, doggone it. Maybe there was a problem, yeah.”

The proposal to create the Paso Robles Basin Water District will go before voters in an election on March 8, with three separate votes on creating the district, establishing a special tax to fund it, and electing its board of directors.

The proposal is generating controversy. One group of vineyard owners and other residents called Protect Our Water Rights is opposing the creation of a water district. They’ve gone to court to pursue an adjudication of the basin, which they argue would lead to a better court-supervised solution.

Gage doesn’t see that as a workable approach.

The county’s Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, amended the land use ordinance in October to make permanent its restrictions, which bar new vineyards or other water-using development in the Paso Robles basin unless water use elsewhere can be retired in exchange. If a vineyard intends to drill a new well, it needs to show it can conserve an equivalent amount of groundwater by taking out a more water-intensive crop or taking other steps.

“It’s a way of saying look, we can’t let people plant acre after acre, hundreds of acres of wine grapes, without doing something to offset that water use,” said Bruce Gibson, one of the county supervisors who backed the change in a contentious 3-2 vote. “We have a serious problem with groundwater, and I think most people recognize this now. If we don’t do something, we’re going to hit the wall somewhere down the line.”

The effects of drilling deeper go beyond higher pumping costs. In the Paso Robles area, the aquifer is made up of multiple layers of water and rocks, and at lower levels those layers can contain water tainted with high levels of boron, chlorides and other natural contaminants that can make it unfit for human consumption or use in agriculture unless it’s treated.

The county measures affect only the Paso Robles groundwater basin. Just outside that area, near Atascadero, there are no restrictions and vineyards are still being planted. On a recent morning, workers moved along the rows on a hillside slipping plastic tubes over newly planted vines.

Kim Routh has also seen new vineyards spring up on the winding roads around her ranch. When a vineyard was established years ago directly across the road, one of her wells went dry within a month. She had used water from that well to fill a round basin and a watering trough for her cattle. Without that source, she said she decided to reduce the number of cattle she raises.

“The large corporations come in and pump like crazy,” she said. “And the people who live in the area can’t afford to go that deep.”

Her ranch is located in an unincorporated area where the county’s measures don’t apply, and she said winemaking companies have been buying up land all around to take advantage of the lack of regulation. Routh has been appalled to see that even as people have been struggling with dry wells, new vineyards have been planted.

“Money has taken over and crushed all common sense,” she said.

Standing beneath an old windmill, Routh said she sees a real threat of completely running out of water.

“Sad. There used to be so much water here. It literally shot out of that well head,” she said, looking up at the windmill, which was squeaking as the blades slowly turned.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to upset their neighbors,” Routh said. “I used to try to keep my head in the sand, but I can’t anymore because it’s just crashing in on us.”

A valley’s descent

Highway 99 cuts through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, passing fields of bare earth where dust devils whirl beneath the cloudless sky.

The alluvial soil spreads out as flat as a lake and meets patches of green that stretch into the distance and fade in the hazy air. In the 1800s, there was a giant lake here, Tulare Lake, which was fringed with marshes. But its waters were diverted to farms more than a century ago, and the lakebed was transformed into fields.

Along the road, farms roll past in a blur: fields of cotton, orange groves, dairies, grapevines, and orchards of nectarines, peaches, walnuts, pistachios and almonds. Among them are pipes that gush water into standpipes.

This portion of the Central Valley south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta lies at the epicenter of the state’s problems of groundwater depletion. Tulare County has led the state with, at last count, about 1,900 dry wells in less than two years.


One of those wells stopped flowing at the home of farmworkers Enrique Olivera and Yolanda Galvan, in a neighborhood flanked by walnut orchards near Visalia. For the first few months, neighbors let them use water through a hose from their well. Then they signed up to receive a water tank, and regular water deliveries by tanker truck, through a program supported by the state and the county.

As workers connected the new tank to their household pipes, Galvan said she is grateful to have the tank because her family can’t afford to drill another well. But she also expressed aggravation that she’s been struggling to keep her fruit trees alive while across the street a farmer’s well pours out a steady stream into the mouth of a large standpipe day and night.

“The farmers are using much more water than residents like us,” Galvan said, sitting on her porch while her 3-year-old son pedaled his tricycle in circles.

“They’re stealing water from us, because they’re using too much water. They should change their irrigation systems. Because the field here in front of us, they turn on the water and they let the water run,” Galvan said. “They’re using a lot in order to get rich, and they’re leaving us without water.”

Farmers in Tulare County deny those accusations, saying they’ve had surface water taken away from them by court rulings and the decisions of government officials who have curtailed water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect the endangered delta smelt and other fish.

Farmer Mike Faria called it a “government-induced drought” on top of the natural drought. He said that while the declines in groundwater are worrying, farmers’ hands are tied because of the reductions in flows through canals.

“Everybody is using groundwater. That’s how we sustain ourselves through a dry time where there is no surface water,” said Faria, whose family runs a 3,500-acre farm and five dairies in Tipton. “We’re all pumping from the same bowl. We all got straws in the ground.”

Previously the Farias could count on surface water to meet a portion of their needs, but those flows have disappeared. And Faria said it’s been a struggle to adapt. Several wells have failed, and they’ve invested in deeper wells. Still, they have less water to work with.

“We had to sacrifice some land in order to take care of the rest of it,” Faria said, standing on a fallow field covered with dry stubble left behind from the last crop.

His father Danny Faria, Sr., looked out across the parched field and kicked a weed with his boot, dislodging it and sending dust swirling. He said they aren’t farming about 13 percent of their land because they don’t have the water for it this year.

“The only way to recharge the water is the surface water,” the elder Faria said.

“We need more surface water, more dams to hold water in wet years,” he said. “If you don’t have surface water, you use groundwater.”

He said he deeply disagrees with the state government’s approach. And if he could pick up and leave California for somewhere else, he would.

As for regulating groundwater, he said: “I can’t stand the idea, but I know it’s coming.”

Nearby in the community of East Porterville, the front yards of farmworkers’ homes are filled with brown grass and withered shrubs. The city of Porterville’s deep wells have kept flowing, but in this unincorporated area just outside city limits, the water table has fallen below the reach of shallow wells and entire blocks have been left without running water. Tanks have been installed in front of many homes.

Some people in East Porterville now make regular trips to a community water station, where they unravel hoses to fill up their tanks and barrels on the beds of pickup trucks and trailers.

Diego Bedolla, a 15-year-old who was helping his father fill two plastic barrels, said their well is running low and the water comes out with sand in it. When they get the barrels home, they carry the water inside with buckets to use for washing dishes, washing clothes and bathing.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “The buckets aren’t that heavy, but it gets tiring when you do it for a while.”

In the past, water from the Lake Success reservoir would normally flow down through the Tule River and recharge the aquifer around East Porterville. The drought has driven the reservoir’s levels to record lows. Some water has continued to flow out of Lake Success, but it’s diverted through concrete-lined ditches to farms that hold senior water rights. Nothing has been left to flow downstream alongside East Porterville. The riverbed sits bone dry, and that has eliminated a source of recharge for the aquifer.

At a church parking lot in East Porterville, the county government has set up an emergency drought center with a trailer where residents can take showers.

A local charity, the Porterville Area Coordinating Council, has organized events to hand out donated bottled water. At times, residents have lined up bumper-to-bumper in cars and trucks beside an old lemon packing house to receive cases of drinking water.

The volunteers doling out water include Ron and Cheryl Perine, whose well stopped working last year in a neighborhood where the biggest water users are fruit and nut orchards.

Ron hauled tanks of water on a trailer for months, and for a time was lugging buckets around the house before they took out loans to drill a deeper well.

“We’ll be the rest of our life paying for the well – $600 a month,” Ron said. The payments are stretching a family income consisting of Social Security payments and his disability benefits as a Vietnam veteran.

“I know a lot of people who don’t think it’s a crisis like a hurricane or volcanoes or earthquakes,” Ron said, “but if you’re in it like this, it is. It’s a crisis.”

The Perines’ new well is 300 feet deep. But Cheryl said they still worry about what would happen if the water table keeps dropping.

“It’s just unsure what’s going to happen and how long it’s going to last. Because if we have to drill another well, we’re done,” she said. “It’s in God’s hands, because financially we can’t afford to do it again.

On highways cutting through farmland, large signs appear: “No Water = No Jobs” and “Help! Solve the Water Crisis.”

“There’s a lot of water that’s going through the bay that should be coming down here,” said Bill Gargan, president of the well-drilling business Kaweah Pump Inc.

“These farmers, our customers, they don’t want to deplete the groundwater. That’s their lifeblood,” Gargan said, standing next to a drilling rig as it bored a new 400-foot-deep well.

“They wouldn’t be turning these pumps on, and having it cost them so much money to run these pumps, if they had surface water to where they could use a smaller pump with less power,” he said.

Farmers around Visalia have been spending $160,000 to $180,000 for new wells, Gargan said, while deeper wells in the western portion of the valley can run $300,000 to $500,000.

“We’re getting probably like 30 calls a day,” Gargan said. “The waiting list for a well right now is about a year and three months.”

The demand is so strong that some drillers have moved to California from other states. Drilling rigs have been humming day and night, boring holes deeper than ever before.

In parts of the San Joaquin Valley, groundwater levels have fallen more than 100 feet below their previous record lows.

The state’s list of areas in “critical overdraft” also includes places across California ranging from Merced to Oxnard, and from Paso Robles to the desert of the Borrego Valley in eastern San Diego County.

Water levels in wells have fallen by more than 100 feet since 1995 in parts of Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

Major declines have occurred not only in California but also in places across the western United States. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and NASA found in one study that groundwater has been rapidly depleted in the Colorado River basin, accounting for three-fourths of the region’s total losses of freshwater – which also included losses from rivers and reservoirs – between 2004 and 2013.

They estimated that 50.1 cubic kilometers of groundwater was depleted from the basin during that period, far surpassing the amount of surface water losses from Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Groundwater and surface water are connected. During dry seasons, flows emerging from aquifers sustain many streams and rivers. Groundwater also reaches the surface in natural springs. When aquifers decline, flows in streams can decrease. Springs can dwindle and dry up, as they have in parts of the desert in Southern California.

Last winter California had the smallest snowpack ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. Long-term decreases in snowpack due to global warming pose threats to a water system that was designed for a different climate. And if combined with serious depletion of groundwater, both of those changes could make the state’s water situation even more precarious.

But if groundwater can be managed better and levels are allowed to recover, scientists have said it would provide an important reserve for dry times and make California more water-secure as the climate warms.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has advocated what it calls a “big water supply shift” in California to focus on making groundwater supplies sustainable.

“It will be critical to achieve a better balance by refilling our groundwater account during wet periods for use during dry periods,” the nonprofit group said in a report. It said that will involve redesigning systems to better capture water from storms and building infrastructure to replenish aquifers.

The group also called for better measurement and monitoring, saying that’s vital to managing groundwater.

The problem for California is that the water deficit has grown so large.

NASA and UC Irvine researchers have estimated using satellite data that the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins have lost 15 cubic kilometers of freshwater each year of the drought since 2011, with about two-thirds of those losses due to groundwater pumping.

The state would need multiple wet winters and at least 12 trillion gallons of additional water in its reservoirs, snowpack and aquifers to emerge from the drought, said Jay Famiglietti, a UC Irvine hydrologist and senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Even then, depleted aquifers would take much longer to recover.

And one of the moral problems, he said, is that it’s perfectly legal for those who can afford it to keep drilling deeper, while others are left dry.

“What that means is that only the wealthier individuals and the bigger farms will be able to survive with respect to groundwater, and that’s unfair,” he said. “It’s become this true tragedy of the commons and a race to the bottom of the Central Valley.”

Across California, the state government has received more than 3,000 reports of households out of water during the past two years.
Counties in the Central Valley have had the most wells go dry.
Tulare County has led the state with about 1,900 dry wells.
Tulare County

Sinking ground

Back in 1977, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Joseph F. Poland posed next to a telephone pole in the San Joaquin Valley for a photo to illustrate the findings of his research. That image has since become famous. Near the top of the pole was a sign marking where the surface of the ground sat in 1925, about 30 feet higher.

Since then, a series of canals was built to bring water to the area, and the sinking of the ground slowed. But it has continued elsewhere, and has accelerated in other parts of the San Joaquin Valley during the past few years.

It’s also a problem in places across the country and around the world where groundwater is excessively pumped from aquifers that are made up of fine-grained alluvial sediments and clay. Well-known cases of sinking ground, or land subsidence, have also occurred in Mexico City, Bangkok, the Houston-Galveston area and the Las Vegas Valley.

Across the United States, scientists have found subsidence is occurring in portions of 45 states covering more than 17,000 square miles. In some places where the ground has settled, buildings and pipes have been cracked and damaged, roads have buckled, the steel casings of wells have pushed out of the ground, and canals and bridges have been left needing costly repairs.

In parts of the Coachella Valley in Southern California, the ground sank by between nine inches and 2 feet from 1995 to 2010. In the 1990s, cracks began showing up in homes, swimming pools and roads in some areas of La Quinta. In recent years, there have been fewer reports of damage in that area, apparently because the Coachella Valley Water District has been using water from the Colorado River to help replenish the aquifer nearby.

The most rapid subsidence in the state has been occurring in the San Joaquin Valley, where USGS hydrologists Claudia Faunt and Michelle Sneed have been tracking the problem. They’ve been using satellite images, measurements of groundwater levels and also a network of devices called extensometers to quantify the compaction of the aquifer.

“In the last month, it’s shown about a half an inch of compaction at this location,” Sneed said after examining an extensometer in a shed next to the Delta-Mendota Canal. “It is cranking. It’s like changing every minute.”

She rolled out a large measuring tape to check the depth of an adjacent well, while Faunt jotted the measurements. Then they found a spot along the canal where the concrete lining was cracked and jutting upward.

“This has been a problematic area for subsidence,” Sneed said. In areas where canals sink, it can reduce or disrupt the flow of water. The long-term costs of fixing such problems haven’t been comprehensively tallied, but they’re substantial.

Sneed stopped at a bridge crossing another canal. At first glance, the bridge appeared normal. Then she pointed out that the water has risen higher than the base of the bridge. Off to the side of the bridge, water was seeping out and formed a muddy strip along the road.

“As subsidence has occurred, the bridge has come down,” she said. “The water surface is higher than the bridge and this bridge has to be replaced.”

Land subsidence is explained by Michelle Sneed of the USGS.Steve Elfers, Jerry Mosemak

As groundwater has been pumped out, “lenses” of clay have compacted and rearranged themselves, Faunt explained, so that they become flat “like a stack of dinner plates.”Faunt explained how it’s happening, starting with the geology of the Central Valley’s aquifer system. The valley’s alluvial soil began as sand, gravel and clay that washed down from the Sierra Nevada and the coastal ranges. Think of a bathtub filled with layers of sand, rocks and clay, and water that has flowed down from the mountains and seeped in over tens of thousands of years.

When that occurs, as it has across the Central Valley, the aquifer becomes compacted and its water-storing capacity is permanently reduced.

“If you think of where we are now, the land surface used to be about 4 feet over my head,” Faunt said. “The land has subsided about 10 feet here.”

The ground level has followed the aquifer’s levels, which in some areas have fallen a total of 300-400 feet, Faunt said. The most severe sinking has recently occurred near the town of El Nido, and farmers have been drilling wells as deep as 2,000 feet to reach the receding water.

Faunt and other researchers have estimated the rate of depletion from the Central Valley at about 1.85 cubic kilometers per year on average since 1960. Each year, that’s a loss of enough water to fill about 740,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. During the latest four-year drought, though, they’ve calculated groundwater is being depleted much faster, at about twice that rate.

While farms have become more water-efficient over the years, there also has been rapid growth in the planting of higher-value crops such as fruit and nut orchards and vineyards. Those permanent crops have the effect of making the demand for water less flexible in the long-run because they require year-round irrigation and unlike other crops cannot be left fallow in dry times.

“To reverse the trend I think is going to take a lot of things. The simple answer is we need to reduce groundwater pumping,” Faunt said. “We need to basically balance that bank account.”

Moving in that direction can be achieved by either reducing the amount of overdraft or recharging aquifers with flows of surface water.

“We really need to think about what we’re doing in between droughts and how to manage the water and get water into the ground between the droughts,” Faunt said.

In each area of the state, a different set of remedies could help depending on the severity of the overdraft, the symptoms and the availability of other water sources. If the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act works as intended, it could be a historic opportunity for communities with badly depleted aquifers to come up with their own solutions.

“It puts it squarely on the locals to get it done, or the big bad state will step in and do it for them, but it also gave them tools,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “Your goal is to give the locals the political will to do it themselves.”

The proposal in Paso Robles to create a new agency to manage groundwater will be closely watched across the state, and supporters say it could be a model for how an area can find compromises to address severe depletion.

Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, said he thinks the timetable of allowing agencies until 2040 to achieve plans for sustainable management is much too slow. He has recommended speeding up the pace, including moving more quickly to improve measurement and monitoring.

“We need to know how much water is actually being withdrawn and who’s taking it,” Gleick said. “As long as we’re not measuring and monitoring all groundwater uses, those people who can afford to drill deeper wells, those people who can afford to pump more, will benefit from that lack of control.”

And as pumping costs continue to escalate, some farmers could eventually be forced to reduce irrigation or stop pumping altogether, the same way they’ve shut off their wells in parts of Texas and Kansas that rely on the Ogallala Aquifer.

The answer for California, Gleick said, can no longer simply be “find more surface water.” The reason, he said, is that water from streams and rivers is already heavily used, and taking more would seriously harm ecosystems.

“We might be able to squeeze a little more water out of the surface systems that we’ve built in California, but that’s not the long-run answer,” Gleick said. “The truth is in many parts of California we’re already taking too much water out of our surface systems.”

In the big picture, Gleick said he recommends three solutions for dealing with groundwater overdraft:

1). Figuring out how to manage surface water better in order to prevent overdraft and boost groundwater levels. That includes capturing more runoff during intense storms to recharge aquifers.

2). Finding ways to use groundwater more efficiently and grow more food with less water. That includes improving irrigation systems, changing the mix of crops and growing less water-intensive crops.

3). Cutting back on pumping where it’s necessary. In some places, he said, people are simply taking too much out of the system and “the only way to bring it back into balance is to reduce what we’re doing.”

He said those recommendations apply not only to California but to more and more parts of the world where groundwater overdraft is worsening and ultimately is unsustainable.

This increasingly serious problem, he said, has been long underappreciated and neglected, but it can no longer be ignored.

USA TODAY Investigative Reporter Steve Reilly contributed to this report.

This special report was produced with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.