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Is The Drought Almost Over? That Depends On Where You Live, But Not In Tulare County

Ezra David Romero
Valley Public Radio
The community of East Porteriville in Tulare County was perhaps the hardest hit place in the entire state by the drought.

California’s received record levels of snow and rain so far this year. And in Northern California there are signs that the drought may be coming to an end. There are full reservoirs, record snow levels and flooding. But as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports even though there are these indicators, places in the Central Valley remain in extreme drought.

"There will be some places - actually down in Tulare County that won't get all the water they will like." - Jay Lund, UC Davis

All this talk of the drought nearing an end has me wondering whether this is just wishful thinking. UC Davis Water Expert Jay Lund says that depends on where you live.

"We’re not going to be so hard pressed for the most part this year in providing water for most of the state,” says Lund. “There will be some places – actually down in Tulare County – that won’t get all the water they will like.”

Recent storms are filling reservoirs across the state and the ample snowpack could bring a steady flow of runoff later this year, but even still Lund says areas like Tulare County are in a predicament due to over pumping of groundwater which could take years to build up again. Lund says that means no matter how much precipitation Central California gets the drought isn’t ending here anytime soon.  

“I think it's arguable that in some parts of the Tulare Basin you might never recover that groundwater that was depleted during this drought and the value of surface water that you would like to have in some ways to recharge the groundwater is so valuable in the immediate year that very little of it will make it to recharge,” Lund says.

Credit Mckellar Farms Facebook
Mckellar Farms Facebook
McKellar Farms near Ivanhoe grows all sorts of citrus.

Eastside citrus grower Bob McKellar knows this all too well. Five out of six wells on one of his plots of land went dry last year. With all the rain he’s trying to stockpile water in the earth underneath his farm to avoid the same this year.

“The water is coming down the St. John’s River and the Kaweah River and all of our ditches are full and almost all of water is going back into the ground,” says McKellar. “So what we’re getting right now is quite helpful, it’ll be part of the answer.”

Still McKellar says he’s not that optimistic that farms like his will be allotted enough water stored in reservoirs this year. For him the drought isn’t over.

“There’s two parts to the drought,” McKellar says. “The weather and the other part of the drought as far as farmers are concerned is due to government regulations. Even if all the reservoirs were chuck full a lot of that water is going somewhere else.”

He’s referring to salmon restoration efforts on rivers and to growers with rights to water before him. McKellar’s not alone in this struggle. Westside melon and vegetable grower Joe Del Bosque says he loves the extra moisture, but says he’d be surprised if he has enough water come summer for his crops. His water supply comes from Northern California.

"With all of this precipitation we've got we're not going to receive our full amount of water. We haven't been able to get water effectively across the delta into San Luis Reservoir." - Joe Del Bosque, Farmer

“If we don’t have that water we’re in a drought,” says Del Bosque. “With all of this precipitation we’ve got we’re not going to receive our full amount of water. We haven’t been able to get water effectively across the delta into San Luis Reservoir.”

That reservoir is currently about 70 percent full. Del Bosque says more needs to be done to build up water levels underground in the short term. There is planning being done with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, but any decision is years out prolonging a remedy for the deficit of water in the earth under our feet.

“We’ve been extracting it at a pretty good clip for the last three or four or five years and only this year is some of that moisture starting to go back,” Del Bosque says. “I don’t think we’re seeing enough of that.”

Even with all the precipitation wells are still going dry in Tulare County.

That lack of groundwater recharge isn’t just a problem for farmers. Whole communities are still dealing with the issue of dry wells due in part to the lack of groundwater recharge.  There are still about 400 homes with dry wells across Tulare County.  Andrew Lockman is with the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services.

“We are continuing to get dry well reports and the thought was okay we are not going to have people in winter when hopefully we are having rain,” says Lockman. “That’s not shown to be true. We actually have people that have gone dry in December and January.”

Lockman says it could take years before precipitation that falls today fills the groundwater deficit in Tulare County.

“Think about how long the water takes to percolate into the soil,” says Lockman. “If you’re in an area where it’s going to take two years even if we have this great rainfall, the rivers are running right and everything right now in 2017 that may end up in your well in 2019.”

That means people in Tulare County may have to deal with drought conditions for years to come. Lockman says the only real solution to all this is to stop talking about groundwater recharge and to actually set aside water for restoring these aquifers today.


Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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