“It’s the best water you can drink,” my Aunt Mary Beth would say about the well when my family visited their farm near the Sierra Nevada foothills in Exeter, California, in the 1960s and 70s.
It was an idyllic small farm with grape vines back by the train track and a big orange grove. In summer we cousins would drive go-carts and climb walnut trees during the day and play statue tag among the fireflies after it cooled down at night. On holiday trips we’d be inside out of the cold fog and play the original extreme sport: “Spoons.”
Uncle Johnny was a farmer as well as a citrus researcher with the University of California Extension Service for at least 30 years before he retired and they sold the farm. My grandparents had an orange grove across the street for a while. Certainly, my family was knowledgeable about water.
My aunt and uncle’s well was out front, with massive pumps and a huge storage tank perched on a wooden platform just above our heads. It made a great impression on me as an adolescent, and I wanted to know why it was “the best” water, exactly?
Their explanation about groundwater being naturally filtered and more pure than a river or lake made sense—and intrigued me. I think he also said the well was “artesian” – which sounds exotic and wonderful, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I learned exactly what that meant.*
Indeed, California was ripe for study when I was in grad school in Arizona, where water wars are part of life because groundwater and surface water are regulated as legally separate resources. (Water managers have to decide which is which before they can approve a new use and determine potential impacts to senior users.)
In Arizona in the 1980s, “conjunctive use” (of surface and ground water) became all the rage after a federal court clarified western states’ rights to Colorado River water – and managers were eager to make full benefit. Arizona engineered ways to infiltrate their share so it could be stored underground for later use and, Presto! – the state was managing groundwater and surface water conjunctively but regulating them separately.
California’s foible was the absence of groundwater regulation altogether. For one of the nation’s most environmentally-conscious states, the need to put legal limits on wells and pumping was overlooked by the state legislature until 2014. By that point, land subsidence up to 25 feet resulting from unsustainable groundwater pumping in the Central Valley had been documented for more than 50 years.
Thinking back to the era I visited our extended family’s farm, those were the good old days. By the 1990s, there were up to 350 well drilling reports in Tulare County alone, per year, as farmers became desperate to find water.
Quantity vs. Quality
Now that I’ve been in the field, as it were, for quite a while I’ve come to learn that California wasn’t paying adequate attention to either groundwater quantity or quality, and the result is very troubling. Small towns in particular, often serving disadvantaged populations, have seen their drinking water wells dry up.
And, since over-pumping can draw contamination further into the aquifer system, a community that drills deeper to find water may discover that it’s contaminated with leached fertilizers and pesticides. The rate of “blue baby syndrome” (caused by drinking water or formula made with water containing high nitrates) in one town near my uncle’s farm is 40% higher than in the rest of the state, according to public health officials.
Property values and bond ratings suffer, because who wants move into a town with a contaminated water supply?
Between over-pumping and groundwater contamination, headlines in the media are horrific. Some sources estimate that there are more than a million people drinking groundwater tainted with chemicals or bacteria in the Central Valley.
Public health crises due to lack of decent water are not supposed to happen in the United States, with our Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. But that’s the reality in Flint, Michigan, central California, Texas, and other states.
Time of innocence
It’s the season of freezing fog where my grandparents and cousins farmed. Traveling to visit them along Highway 99 I was mesmerized by how row crops looked like rolling piano keys as our car sped by. It was a time of innocence, long before we knew what was happening in the ground beneath us.
I loved those visits to our cousins’ farm, and am dumbfounded that my home state has not taken better care of its people. Perhaps another seed my uncle planted was the one that sprouted in my life, growing into a career focused on water in the place I live.
I am continually grateful for our community and our water – and for the stringent laws enforced in our state that protect us.
We have a private well at our home. It’s the best water you can drink, and we won’t take it for granted.
*Artesian means groundwater confined under pressure. When pressure creates discharge from a well or spring it is called “flowing artesian.”
For the 2018 water year (started Oct. 1):
• Cumulative rainfall (elev. 25’)=5.8”
• At the Dungeness SNOTEL station (elev. 4,000’), snowpack=5” (down from 24”). Days/nights below freezing=3.
Streamflow on November 27:
• Dungeness River= 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs) and dropping, post-storms when flow almost reached 4,000 cfs. (1 cfs is just under 650,000 gallons per day)
• Bell Creek at Carrie Blake Park= approx. 2 cfs; at the mouth of the creek at Washington Harbor= approx. 4 cfs
Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. Reach Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her blog @watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.