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Drought conditions static in California as state’s reliance on groundwater grows

With reservoirs low and no drought relief in sight, the Central Valley has no choice but to continue drawing water from aquifers as issues facing groundwater mount.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Nearly 17% of the state remains in exceptional drought conditions with the majority being in the San Joaquin Valley. The weekly drought monitor showed no changes to conditions in California. 

The past month's monsoonal moisture improved conditions in portions of the Sierra Nevada and desert regions, but the majority of the state slipped further into drought.

Credit: droughtmonitor.unl.edu
No changes in this weeks version of the drought monitor

As the drought drags into its third year, many look to reservoir and river levels to gauge the severity of the drought. However, California's groundwater, our water "bank account," is the true measure of water security in California according to supervisory hydrologist Claudia Faunt of the United States Geological Service, .

"We have three main reservoirs, the snowpack, the reservoir and stream system, and then when water seeps into the ground, it's known as groundwater. It's kind of an invisible resource," Faunt said.

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The California Department of Water Resources describes groundwater as an important source of water stored in the earth in spaces between sand, soils and fractured rock, known as an aquifer. 

In drought years, when surface water resources like reservoirs and rivers run low, the Central Valley relies on pumping groundwater to supply its cities and farmers. Faunt said that the consecutive years of drought are where problems arise. 

"In a lot of the areas, the groundwater has been overused to the extent that the basins are being depleted, so that when you have a drought, it exacerbates the system, where the water levels drop even lower," she said.

Reservoir levels are so low that, for a second year in a row, many irrigation districts are poised to receive none of their usual allocations of water from the Central Valley Project, according to a Stanford University Study.

Many communities are even overdrawing their aquifers to the point where basins are being depleted. The Central Valley has been subsiding, or sinking, for decades due to overdrawing of groundwater. When water is drawn out of the aquifer from wells, the ground compacts and sinks permanently. 

Credit: USGS
The striking subsidence of the central valley portrayed by this famous image from 1977

This presents a problem for the existing infrastructure of these sinking areas. 

The Delta-Mendota canal, a key component of the Central Valley Project, plays a critical role in delivering water to 1.2 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin, San Benito, and Santa Clara valleys and delivers water to more than 2 million Californians, according to the California Department of Water Resources

The area that the canal runs through suffered over 29 feet of subsidence from 1925-1977, according to the USGS. Faunt said subsidence has canals moving water up a slope, meaning they can't deliver as much water as they were originally intended to do.

When it comes to goals of recharging aquifers and tackling groundwater issues, she thinks there's still a way reach them.

"There's two ways to get at that bank account, put more water in or stop taking as much water out. I think we can get there," Faunt said. "But I think it's going to take both sides of that equation. Whether it’s irrigating more efficiently or transitioning to different crops, or even overwatering the areas facing subsidence during wet years to recharge the systems, I think it is doable."

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