Late last year, residents in West Bishop noticed a disturbing drop in the water table that left at least a dozen residential wells dry. The change came as both Inyo and Mono Counties felt the overall effect of a third year of drought.
According to Russell Kile, owner of Maranatha Drilling & Pump Service, the affected wells are 40-50 years old, and were only drilled down to 30-50 feet in depth. “In several states in our country, you can’t even use water above 50 feet,” he said. Well owners “knew they had a problem to begin with,” he said.
Owners of older wells in West Bishop will now have to drill their wells about 150 feet deep, Kile said, at a cost of about $20,000.
In spite of what Kile suggested was an inevitable problem with wells dug shallowly many decades ago, he went on to add that he’s never seen a drought season quite like this one. Considering the drop in the water table, “plant life and vegetation is of critical concern,” he said. “I haven’t seen such widespread drying out of vegetation, even out in Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service area lands.”
Kile added that on his own 40 acre parcel of land outside of Benton, “plants are beginning to turn into dead brush.”
Dead brush and dry wells are just a few symptoms of a record third year of drought in the Eastern Sierra. According to Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington, “Bishop just completed the second driest calendar year on records.” Records have been kept about 75 years, he said. “It hasn’t been as dry as it was in 2013 since 1947.”
Harrington also noted that the area hasn’t experienced two back-to-back drought years of such intensity, with less than 60% of normal snowpack each year, since 1960-1961. And things aren’t looking up, he said. The current prediction for April 2013 through March 2014 is 54% of average.
Not only the Eastern Sierra, but the entire state is currently gripped by drought. In early January, the California Department of Water Resources concluded that the statewide snowpack is at 20% of average for this time of year. This January is tied with January 2012 as the driest in 25 years of Department of Water Resources record keeping.
Residents statewide are noticing the effects, as water levels in California’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, have dropped to 57% of average to date. Meanwhile, according to the Sacramento Bee, the level of Folsom Lake has dropped lower than during the winter of 1976-77, which was one of the worst drought years in California history. The lowering water level has exposed the remnants of a Mormon Gold Rush mining town.
“It’s a significant problem going on,” said Russell Kile of Folsom Lake. “You don’t fill a lake like that over one season.”
The water shortage especially affects those who use water for their livelihood. Here in Inyo and Mono Counties, ranchers are smarting from a third year of drought. According to Inyo/Mono Agricultural Commissioner Nate Reade, “a lot of [ranchers] are cutting herd sizes. There’s only so much to feed them, and it’s expensive to buy feed,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where there are going to be lasting effects. Every year [the drought lasts] it takes longer and longer to recover.”
The Agriculture Commission already documented a 2.7% decrease in agricultural production from 2011 to 2012, from about $79.4 million to $77.2 million in the value of commodities produced in both counties.
Betty Hodik, who oversees severa;l counties for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) seconded that the drought has hit producers who rely on irrigated and non-irrigated grazing the hardest.
Since 2011, the FSA has offered a Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) to provide financial assistance to producers whose crops are affected by natural disaster. Of the eight counties under Hodik’s purview, Inyo and Mono represent “our most active area,” she said. Last year, applicants in both counties who filed for NAP reported losses on non-irrigated land ranging from 57-90%. Applicants reported 16-81% losses on irrigated land, Hodik said. These numbers are lower because applicants with irrigated land are still generally receiving a portion of their irrigation allotments from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).
“The ‘March Miracle’ is what I know a lot of them are hoping for,” Hodik said of ranchers. But, “It’s not looking good this year, either,” she said.
Rancher Mark Lacey, a fourth generation Inyo County resident, spoke to the challenges facing his and his father’s Centennial Livestock and Lacey Livestock operations. “This year, we’re down 20 percent from what our historical numbers are,” he said. “It could be down, if we don’t have some type of winter, by 50 percent [come fall].”
Because Lacey has little irrigated land in Inyo, he relies primarily on precipitation and groundwater. Given the effect of drought on native vegetation, “It could take a couple years until it gets healthy enough” to support Lacey’s cattle, he said.
What’s worse, the irrigated land Lacey moves his herd to near Crowley has received less than 50% of its irrigation allotment from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for the last four years. “If we have dry winters in Inyo, our safety net is usually the Mammoth and Bridgeport area,” he said. “Generally, Mono County is a lot better and more reliable in the summer. But the last couple years, even things in Mono County have been tough.”
Should the drought continue, Lacey said that he may have to move a portion of his operation, which is spread across 9 different counties in California, out of state. Lacey did this during the drought of the late 80’s and early 90’s, he said. He took a portion of the herd to Colorado.
For ranchers like Lacey, the choice is to weather the drought or go bust. “We’re really 100 percent in the cattle business,” he said.
Rancher Ron Yribarren has also felt the effects of the drought. “It’s drier than hell,” he said. Prior to the drought, he said, “I ran 600-800 plus [head of cattle], and now I’m down to 500.”
If the drought continues, Yribarren said dryly, “We might be a few more short.”
Farmers lucky enough to have irrigated lands, or even their own water rights, haven’t yet felt the full brunt of the drought. Rick Devore, owner of Apple Hill Ranch outside of Bishop, noted that the stream that runs through his property, to which he owns the water rights, remains the lifeblood of his operation. In fact, he said, residents of West Bishop “are bringing their fish and putting them in my pond” as their ponds dry up.
But Devore acknowledged that his piece of paradise won’t survive another drought year unscathed. “I have not seen this [kind of drought] since I’ve been here, and that’s back in the 1950’s,” he said. “Honestly, we’re quite worried.”
Some Inyo County residents are expressing concern that the dramatic drop in the Bishop water table is the direct result of LADWP groundwater pumping. In a letter to the Sierra Wave, Bishop resident Daniel Pritchett argued that the DWP’s average annual pumping, which is about 90,000 acre-feet, “exceeds the 70,000 [acre-feet per year] ceiling estimated by the USGS for maintaining groundwater shallow enough to sustain vegetation.”
Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington argued against the theory that the DWP is to blame for the recent drop in the Bishop water table. When the wells in West Bishop first dried up, he said, the Water Department looked into whether DWP pumping might be responsible. The Water Department concluded that while one DWP irrigation well ran two months longer than usual, “it looked to us like the prolonged operation of the well was only likely to affect that area by a foot or so.”
Overall, Harrington said, “when people say the Valley is being pumped dry and the water tables are falling precipitously, that isn’t true.” He noted graphs of DWP pumping compared to graphs of depth to water table (DTW) in the Water Department’s 2013 Annual Report. “Generally the water table isn’t as high as in the mid 1980’s, but we’re not in a state of perpetual overdraft, otherwise these [graphs] would be in continual decline,” he said. Instead, the graphs steadily rise and fall as a function of runoff.
However, Harrington noted that the DWP pumping shortly after the mid-1980’s has had a lasting effect on the Inyo County water table. In 1987, the DWP pumped a record 209,000 acre feet of groundwater from the Owens Valley – a number that has never since been matched. “You can see that [the pumping of 1987] is when a precipitous drop in the water table occurred,” Harrington said.
Whatever the reason for the wells drying, and for vegetation dying, it looks as though things may get worse before they get better. With dismal forecasts for snowpack and precipitation across the state, said Harrington, “We’re getting into that situation where all that can be done is pray.”
Russell Kile argued that residents of both counties can also do more. “When are we going to push the panic button?” he wondered. “I don’t think it’s there now, or it’s going to be there next year, but it could be in the foreseeable future.
“We see what’s happening, and we need to adjust ourselves accordingly,” he said. “There should be some regulation in place. People should not waste water the way they do. There should be a little more consciousness about that by individuals.”