Thursday, August 21, 2008

The thirsty valley

Dry counties

“I lost another well.”

This is not good news.

“That's four of them gone now. One of them was drilled just last year.”

“Wow! That's not nearly enough time to get a return on your investment.”

“Not even close. I might have to go to the well again, in a manner of speaking. But everyone is drilling new wells and we're all going deeper, chasing after the water table. It's not good.”

My brother has about a dozen wells on his dairy farm. Four have gone dry. Both his dairy and his farm are water-intensive operations. The dairy is completely well-dependent. The farm gets an allocation of irrigation water from the extensive system of dams and canals that stores and routes runoff from the Sierra Nevada to the thirsty counties of the San Joaquin, California's great central valley.

If you drive down either I-5 or US-99, the two major north-south freeways that run through the valley, you'll see green fields and herds of dairy cattle on both sides of you. If it weren't for water projects, subsidized by state and federal governments, you'd see long stretches of desert instead. The canals are the Central Valley's circulatory system. They are the life blood of my brother's business.

The dry wells are omens of possible disaster. The ongoing California drought has reduced the supply of irrigation water and farmers resort to more pumping to make up the difference. But that resource is not infinite, and more people are competing for the shrinking supply. My brother prays for rain, but he knows there won't be any for at least a couple of months. His livelihood depends on the wells, and more are likely to go dry. Depending on which ones start spewing dust, it will be either an inconvenience or a disaster.

No one can predict which it will be.


Anonymous said...

Regional climate modelers can't replicate the observed temperatures in the Central Valley. Their models predict mean temperatures that are on the order of 2C "too high". The likely missing factor is irrigation. All the agriculture and massive networks of irrigation help keep the Central Valley cool. Bizarre.

Anonymous said...

I had to laugh at the line "Four have done dry." Not because of what is going on there -- no, it's a problem that wells are going dry -- but because of the typo "done" instead of "gone". As a mild dyslexic I laugh when I notice others making the same mistake I commonly make. You know those letters "d", "p", "q" and "g" are all a circle with a stem pointing some direction and some days they're just interchangable. Drove my teachers nuts.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's a bad idea to raise dairy cows and run a water intensive farm in the desert?

Zeno said...

Joe: Y'think?

llewelly said...

I hope your brother knows that (a) most of N. America south of about 45N has gotten dryer over the last 30 years, and (b) same region is likely to continue to get dryer for the foreseeable future. This is due to global warming inducing the jet stream to move north. This causes the mid-latitude cyclones which deliver most of N. America's rain to cross N. America farther north. This should leave the Central Valley yet more dependent on out-of-state water and the monsoon system of the American Southwest - for which climate models are forecasting weakening. These global models can't make useful projections for areas as small as the Central Valley (and as covered above regional models have trouble with the Central Valley), but the future does not look good for farming in desert valleys.

Zeno said...

I think my brother's business is doomed, Llewelly. I just don't know if it will be sooner or later, but certainly not much later. My niece expects her boys to grow up and work on her Daddy's dairy farm, but I don't see it happening. Fortunately for her delusional peace of mind, my niece is one of many members of my family who think Al Gore invented global warming as a political scam, so she's confident climate change will never touch the family dairy farm. Meanwhile, a neighbor is drilling a new well that will soon be competing with the one that supplies my niece's household.