Wed, Jun 10, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Siphoning California dry, one well at a time

California’s drought has desperate farmers in Central Valley competing for precious groundwater, causing problems like land subsidence and sending tensions among farmers soaring

By Matt Richtel  /  NY Times News Service

Early one morning in late April, Parvinder Hundal stood beside a hole in the ground at the edge of his almond farm near Tulare in California’s Central Valley.

The hole, which was about the size of a volleyball and was encased in a shallow block of concrete, was the opening of a well, one that went hundreds of feet into the earth. He had paid US$100,000 to have it drilled, but it was not producing water. Hundal was hoping that if he cleaned out the well, the water would start flowing again.

On the nearby trees, some leaves had turned yellow, and the almond husks appeared smaller than usual.

In February, Hundal received e-mails from various water districts, informing him that, because of a historic drought that has left reservoirs nearly dry, he would most likely get no surface water to irrigate his 1,619 hectares of crops this summer. Not one drop.

Hundal watched as his nephew, his right-hand man, prepared to lower pipe into the hole.

“We’ll have water by the end of the day, I hope,” Hundal said.

Hundal is an optimist. An immigrant from Punjab in northwest India, he arrived in California in 1986 with little money, and, through a combination of borrowing and shrewdness, he managed to make a small fortune through farming.

However, he is also a pragmatist. Since he cannot count on the virtually unlimited surface water he has been allotted in the past, he is been looking for water underground.

This year, Hundal spent US$300,000 to hire a contractor to dig three wells, including the one in Tulare. Those did not pan out. So he wired US$670,000 to a broker in Texas to buy his own used drill. No water, no problem. Hundal will drill when he wants.

There is a well-drilling boom in the Central Valley, and it is a water grab as intense as any land grab before it. Drilling contractors are so swamped with requests that there is a wait of between four and six months for a new well. Drilling permits are soaring.

In Tulare County, home to several of Hundal’s almond farms, 660 permits for new irrigation wells were taken out by the end of this April, up from 383 during the same period last year and just 60 five years ago — a figure rising “exponentially,” Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency spokeswoman Tammie Weyker said.

‘IT’S ABOUT SURVIVAL’

The new drill that Hundal ordered from Texas should be up and running in a few weeks. He says it can push 762m into the ground, tapping new aquifers and making way for wells that can produce thousands of liters of water a minute. He plans to drill at least six wells on his various farms across the Central Valley: Four of them are in Tulare, and two are on property 160km north.

“It’s about survival,” he said. “Everybody is pulling water out of the ground.”

“Nobody is bothered,” he added. “The neighbors aren’t bothered. Everybody is doing what they’ve got to do.”

It turns out, though, that some people are bothered — very bothered — and are growing hostile. That is because the drilling has serious side effects. Rampant drilling causes underground water levels to fall. When shallow farm and domestic wells that serve residences dry up, the underground bounty goes to those who can afford to dig deeper.

When it comes to drilling for water, there are few rules and no boundaries. Generally, farmers who follow a set of modest regulations can drill on their own land.

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