Most aquifers in the state have dropped to record lows.
California’s disastrous three-year drought has depleted nearly all of its hydrological bank accounts. The Sierra Nevada snowpack last winter was the third-lowest on record. Soils are baked. Mammoth reservoirs are mere puddles. And groundwater tables are dropping with unprecedented speed.
Water levels in many of the state’s most important groundwater basins – those used by cities in coastal Southern California and by farmers in the expansive Central Valley – fell 50 feet or more between the spring of 2013 and the spring of 2014. The statewide plunge led to an arms race of sorts as farmers and landowners poked ever-deeper holes in the ground to access the receding supply.
The losers in this race are the rural poor, the farm workers in Tulare County, marked darkest red on the map, whose domestic wells went dry by the hundreds. Without running water, their showers come from bottles, and they flush toilets by hand. Circumstances in the Central Valley this year were so visibly twisted that legislators passed sweeping reforms to state groundwater law, requiring local agencies, for the first time, to bring water use in line with availability.
The graphic below shows the decline in state groundwater levels and the increase in new wells that have been drilled. The dots represent the change in groundwater levels between the spring of 2013 and the spring of 2014, based on measurements taken through the California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring Program. Red dots represent a decrease in levels, while blue dots show a rise.
The second image translates the point measurements into regional trends. Since the spring of 2013, groundwater depletion has been most severe in the San Joaquin Valley, an expanse of fertile farmland between Fresno and Bakersfield.
The third map shows where new wells were drilled during the first nine months of 2014. The largest increase came in the same counties where groundwater declines were the steepest.
Brett Walton contributed to this infographic, which was made to accompany his article, Yes, It’s Raining in California. No, the Drought Is Not Over. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a tweet to @waltonwater.
is both a scientist and a journalist, helping to drive Circle of Blue’s reporting with data and research. She holds an MS in Environmental Engineering from Michigan Technological University, and she brings proficiency in ESRI’s ArcGIS mapping software.