Infographic: California Drought Drains Groundwater Reserves and Encourages New Wells

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.

California Drought Groundwater Wells Drilling Levels Circle of Blue Kaye LaFond Depletion Water

Graphic © Kaye LaFond / Circle of Blue
California’s drought has depleted the state’s groundwater reserves. Between the spring of 2013 and the spring of 2014, groundwater tables plummeted more than 15 meters (50 feet) in the Central Valley and coastal Southern California as farmers and landowners tap aquifers to survive a horrendous three-year drought. Click image to enlarge.

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 or send a tweet to @waltonwater.

4 replies
  1. Michael Campana says:

    California’s groundwater levels are indeed dropping precipitously in some areas but remember that the state does not know how much total extractable groundwater it has. So it’s analogous to withdrawing more money from a checking account than is being deposited, compounded by the fact that you don’t know how much is in the account. Not a good situation.

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