How better data can help California avoid a drinking water crisis

In summary

Drought reporting systems can predict where wells will dry up and help communities prepare to act before they run out of water.

and Alva Escriva-Bou, special at CalMatters

Alvar Escriva-Bou is a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center, escriva@ppic.org.

The drought is here and we are starting to feel the effects.

The majority of households affected in the last drought were in the San Joaquin Valley and those same communities are among the most vulnerable this time around. As California faces a second year of drought, many are asking, “What can we do to help? “

Last time around, small rural communities dependent on shallow wells – many of which are communities of color – were among the hardest hit. More than 2,600 households reported losing access to water because their wells ran dry between 2012 and 2016. (This number is probably underestimated because reporting was voluntary.) However, a lot has gone wrong. changed since the 2012-2016 drought.

Drought reporting systems such as My water supply is dry are available today, and better data on the depths and locations of domestic wells, as well as groundwater levels, are helping us understand the risk of drought. We used this data to develop a model that estimated wells dried up during the 2012-16 drought.

Using the same methodology and assuming that the drop in groundwater levels will be similar to the drops observed in 2012-2016, we ran different scenarios to predict the impacts of the current drought. The results suggest that about 2,700 wells could dry up this year, and nearly 1,000 more next year if dry conditions persist.

Almost half of those wells are in Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties, but wells are also expected to run out of water in the wetter Sacramento Valley this time around.

We also estimated the costs of repairing these wells by lowering the pumps and drilling deeper wells. Fortunately, the total cost is not huge: $ 14 million for this year and $ 7 million for next year.

California drought is to be expected, and this time around, state and local partners are in a better position to act before the taps go dry. In the aftermath of the latest drought, a County Drought Advisory Group, comprising representatives from counties, tribes, community organizations and other stakeholders, worked with the state to improve understanding of the problem and Recommended actions to improve drought preparedness. Many counties have set up local drought task forces that are ready to act.

The nascent groundwater sustainability agencies, created as a result of the mandate of the 2014 Law on Sustainable Groundwater Management, will also be key partners in this effort, and many of them are already engaged in analyzes and programs to protect vulnerable wells.

In addition, the state has pledged funds to help: the governor’s current budget proposes $ 27 million for drinking water drought emergencies. This could speed up local efforts to protect households from water outages by lowering pumps, drilling deeper wells, grouping households into water supply systems or setting up water reservoirs. emergency.

While it’s not easy to predict where issues will occur with perfect precision – our model, for example, can’t properly identify every item at risk – counties and state can now identify hot spots and report to all stakeholders where problems are likely to occur. .

A key difference between this drought and the last drought is the timing. The last time state aid came mainly in the form of water deliveries after the wells have dried up. This time around, the state can help counties, groundwater agencies and local partners identify sensitive locations and implement quick fixes, including drilling deeper wells and preparing reservoirs for water deliveries. ‘water. before the wells are drying up.

Short-term relief actions deserve early attention this year to maintain water service. If the drought persists, the state will need to seek longer-term solutions, such as connecting people to more resilient water supply systems, as has been done. made in the San Joaquin Valley community in East Porterville.

There is no doubt that communities that depend on shallow wells for drinking water are vulnerable. But through funding and cooperation between state and local agencies, California can improve its ability to mitigate the most significant impacts of drought on communities at risk, ensuring both access to clean water and peace of mind.

Alva Escriva-Bou wrote for CalMatters earlier this year on water partnerships.


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Gail Mena

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