Will drilling more wells in California help or hurt?
A $40 million federal stimulus project to drill up to 50 new wells in California moves forward despite drying aquifers and community complaints.
DOS PALOS, Calif.
The government is spending $40 million in federal stimulus funds to pull water from underground aquifers in drought-stricken California, even as evidence is growing that the well-drilling boom could degrade the quality of water delivered to millions of residents.Skip to next paragraph
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Farmers, conservationists and engineers are criticizing the Interior Department's plan to spend taxpayer money on digging more wells, saying the approach risks marring the environment. Canals buckle, aquifers collapse and drinking water turns saltier due to so much pumping, and studies show that the state's water supplies are dwindling.
"We don't need any more straws going down there 'cause we're already doing a pretty good job of sucking it dry," says farmer Dan Errotabere, who has dug three wells as deep as 1,200 feet to irrigate his tomatoes, almonds, and garlic in recent years. "We're using this water as a last resort, but pretty soon we're going to need a policy to protect ourselves from ourselves."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the government is targeting its well-drilling effort to serve remote communities and prop up California's agricultural economy, a $36 billion industry that grows nearly half the country's fruits, nuts and vegetables.
"The role of the federal government is to provide a helping hand. But the federal government can't solve the water problems," Mr. Salazar says as he sampled sliced cantaloupe with local farmers several weeks ago. "California water issues are a big mess and have been a big mess for a long time."
Since the drought began in 2006, hundreds of new wells have been drilled and are pumping around the clock in the state, tapping aquifers that date to the days of the dinosaurs.
In the last six years alone, the amount of water that has been lost from the aquifers coursing beneath the parched Central Valley would be nearly enough to fill the nation's largest reservoir, Nevada's Lake Mead, NASA researchers says Monday.
Salazar announced in July the department would send emergency drought aid from President Barack Obama's stimulus package to drill and renovate up to 135 wells. The total number has dropped since then, and authorities are still drawing up plans about how and where to drill.
The money will go to dig up to 50 new wells, retrofit up to 40 old ones and install temporary pipes and pumps to move water to crops and orchards, federal officials says. More than $2 million of the funds will be used for monitoring the real-time ecological impacts of wells in sensitive areas, and proposed new wells will undergo environmental review.