Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In the Middle East and North Africa, leaders of Arab countries have taken steps on a controversial dam project in the Nile basin. Al Jazeera reports that the Arab League has called on the UN Security Council to intervene in a long-running regional dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam. The dam is in Ethiopia, on the Blue Nile. It’s the largest in Africa and is expected to be a key source of electricity. For over a decade, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have failed to negotiate terms for filling and operating the dam. A major sticking point is how to deal with future water disputes and how the river’s waters should be allocated during drought. Ethiopia rejected the Arab League’s call for UN intervention.
In research news, a new study is sounding the alarm on groundwater depletion in Iran. The study was published in the journal Nature. It found a concerning decline in the country’s aquifers. Between 2002 and 2015, the number of wells nearly doubled but they were able to pump out less and less water. On average, Iran’s groundwater table dropped about a half a meter per year in that time period.
In the United States, drinking water supplies for more than 500,000 Iowa residents are at risk from drought and toxic algal blooms. E&E News reports that Des Moines Water Works has asked customers to voluntarily cut their lawn watering by 25 percent. This is a response to a worsening drought, with record heat, and a near-record demand for water. The water utility has been forced to rely solely on the Raccoon River because its main source, the Des Moines River, is showing signs of toxicity from algal blooms. Officials will be keeping an eye on water levels in the Raccoon River, which is likely to drop through the summer.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on how the drought in California is threatening to dry up drinking water wells in rural areas.
On Memorial Day, while many Californians were celebrating the unofficial start to summer, the residents of a house off of County Road 200 were contemplating a loss. That day, the homeowners in northern Glenn County submitted an anonymous report to a state database. It said that their drinking water well was on the verge of sputtering out. The well was shallow, only 75 feet deep, and the flow had slowed to a trickle. It pulled water from its site outside the town of Orland, an agricultural valley some 100 miles north of Sacramento, an area covered by almond, walnut, and olive orchards.
The failing well was not an isolated case — and not a quick fix either, as the incident report went on to recount, saying: “Everyone around us and neighbors are having the same problems and with our water table being so low we will have to drill the well deeper but the wait list in Orland and Glenn County is months out and we cannot afford that cost.” Another incident report from Orland this month estimated the cost of drilling a new well at $20,000.
In this blistering year in California, drinking water wells are going dry in increasing numbers. It’s rekindling memories of the historic drought of 2012 to 2016, when over 2,600 wells across the state stopped producing water. In 2014, in the town of East Porterville, so many wells went bust that Tulare County set up portable public showers.
California is not yet to that level of emergency. But a state database for household water supply issues received 38 dry well reports in the first 12 days of June, the most for any month in nearly five years. The trend lines aren’t promising, so government agencies and nonprofit groups are preparing for a difficult summer in which thousands of wells could fail. A rough estimate from the Public Policy Institute of California found that if groundwater levels decline at the same rate as in the last drought, about 2,700 wells could go dry this year.
The problem is growing so fast in Glenn County because the spectacular aridity in recent months is hitting an area that hasn’t really recovered from previous dry years. Amy Travis is deputy director of the Glenn County Office of Emergency Services. She told Circle of Blue “We have lower groundwater levels than before. We’re seeing impacts much more quickly.”
Similar conditions have taken hold across the state, which just experienced its third-driest winter on record and is currently baking in temperatures that exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Major reservoirs are less than half their historical average for mid-June, and the state has begun cutting off surface water deliveries to farmers. Eighty-five percent of California — and the entirety of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys — is in severe or exceptional drought, the two worst U.S. Drought Monitor categories. Though the San Joaquin Valley was the epicenter of the dry well crisis in the last drought, the effects are being felt this time in northern Sacramento Valley counties like Glenn.
Experts and officials interviewed for this story felt that government agencies and nonprofit groups are better equipped to respond this time around. They have more data and sharper insights….and the wounds of the previous drought are still fresh. Ken Austin is the Fresno County Office of Emergency Services manager. He said there’s more awareness of funding resources and that more data is being collected. He told Circle of Blue. “I think there’s better awareness of what we need to be looking for and what we’re evaluating. I think we’re better off just because we’ve been through it.”
The consensus view is that the core of drought response is communication and  outreach. And that early action is superior to post-failure reactions.
Wells are regulated at the county level, not the state. But counties often don’t have the capacity to carry out emergency work. Instead, they function as an intermediary, connecting people in need with nonprofit groups that can assist with state and federal grants. But agencies can’t give help if they don’t know who needs it. That’s according to Sarge Green, a consultant to the Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a forum for regional collaboration. That’s why tools like the state’s reporting system are important.
In the last drought, the state funded a program that gave water tanks to households with dry wells. Trucks came every week or two to refill the tanks. An official said that so far no tank program has been established, though Gov. Gavin Newsom did propose $27 million in his budget request for drinking water emergencies in the drought.
For people like the homeowners off of County Road 200, whose well is down to a trickle, stopgap solutions will have to do for now. The town of Orland, for instance, is offering bulk water delivered via tanker truck. People with dry wells get a thousand gallons for $10, plus a delivery fee set by the trucking companies.
Even that might be temporary. Pete Carr, the town manager, told Circle of Blue that he hopes bulk water might come from outside Orland, perhaps from a town in the southern part of the county, where fewer wells have gone dry. Orland has the misfortune of being close to most of the dry wells in Glenn County, and Carr is worried about the increased stress on the town’s six community wells. As he put it “We don’t want to hasten the demise of our wells.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.