California Drought Spurs Groundwater Drilling Boom in Central Valley

Drillers have more work than they can handle, as water tables fall and experts warn of long-term consequences.

California Drought Spurs Groundwater Drilling Boom in Central Valley

Drillers have more work than they can handle, as water tables fall and experts warn of long-term consequences.

When Floyd Arthur moved to California's Central Valley as a child in the mid-20th century, his migrant worker parents found water by digging just a few feet into the ground.

But now, the drilling company Arthur and his son own has to bore holes 1,000 or even 2,000 feet (300 to 600 meters) deep for water.

"If we don't get a bigger snowpack soon, we're going to be in trouble. I don't know what we're going to do," Arthur said about the most serious drought in California's recorded history. (See "New Technology Measures Snowpack Amid California Drought.")

The Arthurs run just one company that is working around the clock to fulfill the booming demand for new wells in California's Central Valley. As the state feels the pressure of a drought with no end in sight, farmers and landowners who no longer have access to surface water are spending millions of dollars to dig increasingly deep wells.

But experts warn that the new rush for water is unsustainable and that it carries serious consequences for the environment and the future.

These days, Floyd Arthur spends most of his time in retirement, while his son Steve Arthur, 54, leads Arthur Orum, their company of about 30 employees. Arthur's brother-in-law Orvel Orum retired in 1989.

Speaking from the firm's low-slung office building and equipment yard outside Fresno, Steve Arthur said his team "has never been busier." He said farmers, livestock growers, and homeowners who want his company to install a new well for them have to wait 12 or 13 months. The two binders that hold the contracts of those on the waiting list are both four inches (ten centimeters) thick.

"If I sleep three to four hours in a night, I consider myself lucky," Arthur said.

That's because his half-dozen drilling rigs often work through the night, and his cell phone rings constantly with questions and pleas to troubleshoot problems. While inspecting a dusty job site in a cornfield, Arthur glanced at his phone and saw that he had seven new messages. One of them was from a TV producer who wants to talk to him about a possible reality show.

"Farmers are going crazy right now because they can't get enough wells," Arthur said. A few years ago, a well around 500 feet (150 meters) was plenty deep for the region, but no longer.

But deeper wells don't come cheap. Arthur & Orum charges an initial fee of $5,000 plus $225 per installed foot. All in all, once a 1,000-foot (300-meter) well is installed, tested, and fitted with pumps, it costs $300,000 to $350,000.

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Drillers are pushing ever deeper into the Central Valley, with many current projects exceeding 2,000 feet (600 meters). Such wells cost $300,000 to $400,000 by the time they are operational.

No Choice But to Drill

Steve Hettinga is one of those farmers willing to pay for the chance at a new water supply. The young man with a goatee and a firm handshake oversees his family's 3,000 acres of crops and 10,000 dairy cows on flat, sun-kissed plains about an hour south of Fresno.

"It's risky because we don't know for sure that we're going to find any water," Hettinga said about a new 1,000-foot-deep (300-meter) well the Arthurs are drilling on his property. "And with a deeper well, we have to put bigger pumps in, so it costs more. We'll eventually have to pass the increases down to our customers."

Hettinga pointed to a collection of weathered pipes and tanks about a hundred yards (91 meters) away from the active drilling site. That previous well was 400 feet (120 meters) deep, but it went dry about a year and a half ago. Hettinga quickly put in an order with the Arthurs for a deeper well, but it took the drillers this long to fit it into their busy schedule.

In the meantime, Hettinga and his family fallowed some of their fields and did their best to ration the water they had from other wells on their property.

Hettinga is hopeful the deeper well will buy his farm more time, but he admitted that he worries about water for the future. "If we don't get any rain, [the aquifer] is not going to recharge," he said, as he looked out at the horizon, toward a cowboy and dog herding some of his family's black-and-white cattle.

Steve Arthur spent the rest of the morning inspecting the drilling site for a 720-foot-deep (220-meter) well in another farmer's orange grove. Across the road, the ground was dry and cracked.

Next, Arthur checked on another crew drilling a 400-foot (120-meter) well for a home on the outskirts of Selma, just down the road from his own house. His customer's contemporary, two-story home was surrounded by fields of plump grapes.

Over the past few years, the Arthurs have received many calls for new domestic wells, thanks to the drought and falling water tables. The crisis even hit Arthur & Orum itself, after the company's office well ran dry.

In the increasingly arid Central Valley, "we have no choice but to drill more wells and chase the water down," Arthur said.

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Work on the rigs is hot and dangerous. Leaks are frequent and often require welding on the spot.

Pushing It to the Limits

Asked if he worries about butting up against an upper limit to the region's groundwater, Arthur said that "it might be a problem for the next generation." (See "Epic California Drought and Groundwater: Where Do We Go From Here?")

He added that he also worries how long people can afford to keep paying for his services. The Central Valley "feeds the world," he said, providing about half of the U.S.'s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. But it needs water to do so. (See "California Report Warns of Worsening Economic Impacts of Drought.")

Even more immediately, Arthur said his firm is "pushing its equipment right to the limit." Each of his drill rigs costs $1 million new. They break down frequently due to the heavy schedule and the challenging work. It often takes months to get the specialized parts from manufacturers, so Arthur has taken to online and in-person auctions, often in other states, to keep his operation running.

It's even harder to keep workers. "The competition will often show up at a job site and offer my guys more money on the spot," Arthur said.

Farmers are going crazy right now because they can't get enough wells.

To combat this, Arthur pays his assistants about $12 an hour and his lead operators $100,000 to $150,000 a year. But he faces especially intense competition from out-of-state crews, which have flooded the Central Valley from Nevada, Arizona, and elsewhere.

"The out-of-towners are charging two to three times normal prices, and they don't have to meet California air-quality standards for their equipment," said Arthur. "They come in, do a job, and leave, so we often get called to fix their wells if they don't work right."

Farmers themselves are also trying to get in on the drilling boom. Some have begun buying their own rigs. But the expertise needed to run the complicated machinery has been in short supply, and it takes time to get the necessary licenses.

By the end of June, the Central Valley county of Tulare—the state's leader in agricultural production—had issued 874 well permits. That's 44 more than the county logged for all of 2013. According to a report released by the University of California, Davis, in mid-July, the state's food producers will see an estimated $1 billion in lost revenue and have to spend an additional $500 million in pumping costs this year due to the drought.

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A new well in an orange orchard outside Fresno gets cleaned with a soapy solution that gushes like a geyser thanks to the high pressure.

Sharing a Dwindling Resource?

At his office on the leafy campus of California State University, Sacramento, hydrogeologist Tim Horner said, "In California, we are pumping out groundwater faster than it can recharge."

Horner chairs his school's geology department and many of his former students have flocked to the Central Valley to search for water and advise drilling operations. But the science is hampered by the Golden State's antiquated regulatory structure, Horner said.

California is the only state Horner is aware of that does not require water well logs to be made available to scientists and regulators. In dry Texas, in contrast, well data must be posted online so that officials can track the status of aquifers.

Even worse, "in California we don't regulate our pumping at all," said Horner. "There's nothing that says someone can't pump a well until it's dry."

A July 31 report from Stanford University's Water in the West program pointed out that in normal years, groundwater provides about 40 percent of the water California uses. But during drought, that number jumps to 60 percent.

"Using groundwater to supplement California's water supply has allowed farmers and communities in California to limp through the current drought, but at the cost of dramatically drawing down the aquifers," the report warns.

According to Horner, not only does emptying aquifers pose a risk for a water-scarce future, but it also can decrease the amount of water that may be available to recharge springs and streams and nourish ecosystems.

And as water is removed, it can cause soil to collapse. Not only can this permanently decrease the amount of water that an aquifer can hold, but it can also lead to disruptions on the surface through land subsidence. (See "In California, Demand for Groundwater Causing Huge Swaths of Land to Sink.")

We have no choice but to drill more wells and chase the water down.

In some places in the Central Valley, land has dropped by a foot. This has damaged roads, pipes, and other infrastructure and has caused some canals to stop working.

Other states do have restrictions on groundwater pumping, and this fall two bills will be taken up by the California legislature to consider the issue.

"The drought is making people pay attention, and I think things are about to change," said Horner. He noted that the race is on, because climate change is likely to cause more disruptions to natural water supplies in the coming years. (See "Could California's Drought Last 200 Years?")

Asked what will happen to his business if the state starts regulating groundwater, Arthur said, "If they tell people they can't put in wells, they won't be able to grow their crops and they'll be forced to lay people off. People won't be able to make car or house payments. They'll do what they have to do to feed their families, even if it's wrong."

Hard, Stressful Work

On a rig drilling a 2,100-foot (640-meter) well for a farmer near Kettleman City, operator Juan de la Cruz of Fresno's Zim Industries said he has been "really, really busy."

As the sun set over distant peaks, de la Cruz said he didn't know how deep future wells would have to go. In his 14 years on the job, the deepest he has bored was 3,400 feet (1,030 meters), in New Mexico.

When someone calls for a new well, the Arthurs tell them to also put their name in with one or more of their local competitors. "We tell them whoever can get to them first, that's fine," said Barbara Arthur, who runs the office and is married to Floyd.

Steve Arthur said that when he is on a job, a landowner will often ask him to "sneak in" another well or two. He always declines, since wells require permits and planning that take time. Still, Arthur and his father have put in pro bono wells for hard-up members of their community, including one a few months ago for a woman whose husband fell ill.

It's not easy work. Drill crews work 12-hour shifts in loud, hot, dangerous conditions. Hoses can break, pipes can fall, and whole rigs can slide into sinkholes, as has happened to the Arthurs' operations a few times over the decades.

Drillers have to keep constant water and air pressure on their tungsten-coated bits, which frequently snag or break. They expand a well by bolting on a new segment of pipe after each push into the ground. Leaks require frequent welding on the spot. Operators skim the sediment sucked out of the hole every ten feet (three meters), to see what layers lie underneath. Primary drilling takes a couple of days, and then the well must be flushed out and filled with porous casing and lined with gravel.

Looking forward, Arthur is unsure if his sons Michael, 15, or Brandon, 10, will follow in the family business. In the fall, they will start at private school, thanks to the profits from all the new business. Although he had begun working on his father's rigs when he was Michael's age, because of the drought Arthur thinks that his line of work has become "very stressful."

"I sometimes ask my dad, 'Why couldn't you have found an easier occupation?'" said Arthur.