The land east of Madera has changed in the 25 years since Rochelle and Michael Noblett built their home, four doors down from Rochelle’s parents, in River Road Estates.

There are more houses, more acres of irrigated agriculture and less grazing land. There’s also been a significant decline in water availability, as the level of groundwater drops below what some residents’ domestic wells can reach.

That’s why the couple was shocked when the county allowed a new irrigation well and almond orchard “as far as the eye could see” to be installed on what was grazing land in the midst of the most recent drought, even as private wells were going dry and residents were actively conserving water.

“I’m very pro-ag,” Rochelle Noblett told The Fresno Bee. “It’s just these super-large companies that don’t care about their neighbors. They’re just here to make their millions and pull out and leave us high and dry… and nobody is watching this.”

Groundwater problems didn’t end when rain came and severe drought ended. After dropping their pump several times, the Nobletts — like other Madera County residents — had to drill a new well with a lower pump this summer, after the old one sucked sand.

The water level had dropped 200 feet in 25 years, the Nobletts said. A new well cost $27,900.

Michael and Rochelle Noblett look over the new water well they recently had installed for nearly $27,900 when their previous well ran dry, on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. In the 1990s the Nobletts built a home on grazing land in Madera County to raise their kids and retire. At the height of the drought, a large farming operation began growing thousands of trees with deep wells. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Yet even as groundwater basins have been in decline, land use continues to change to more water-intensive activities, contributing to over-tapped water basins and threatening farms and residents who rely on relatively-shallow well pumps for their water.

That trend is expected to continue for decades, but could be tapered by county management activities like water allocations that may influence land use decisions.

The state doesn’t regulate private wells, but state agencies also have a role to play, said Laurel Firestone, State Water Resources Control Board member.

“Together, we need to look squarely at the challenges that we are facing — increasing and more severe droughts due to climate change, water supply demands, water contamination, economic and housing crises — and work to prevent problems before they happen in the future.

That way, the state can focus on assisting communities that are already facing issues,” Firestone said.

Who pays for over pumping?

Hundreds of people who rely on private wells in Madera County and thousands across the central San Joaquin Valley are expected to lose their water in the next 10 or 20 years, despite new regulations intended to ensure sustainable management of the groundwater basin, according to proposed plans and an analysis of those plans commissioned by Water Foundation.

The central San Joaquin Valley lives on groundwater.

Underground aquifers are the primary water source for agricultural, municipal, domestic and industrial uses in the region. The demand on groundwater has outpaced the natural supply, according to state regulators who say groundwater basins in the region are in severe overdraft.

Water users in the Madera Subbasin, for example, extract groundwater faster than the basin can replenish. With current land use, it is estimated that water users pump out 54 billion gallons more than the amount of water that goes into the basin every year, according to an analysis prepared for the Madera Subbasin Coordination Committee.

California became the last state in the nation to regulate groundwater when legislators passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, with the intent to force better regional management of groundwater use.

Water agencies across the state submitted plans for how they intend to manage groundwater in the future. Those plans are under review, but full implementation isn’t required until 2040, and some agencies plan to delay action to prevent economic loss.

It’s written into the proposed plans that domestic wells will be dewatered, meaning the water level will drop below the level of the well pump.

A cost analysis performed for the Madera Subbasin, for example, determined the total cost of drilling new domestic wells is less than the amount of money the agriculture industry would lose by implementing management strategies too quickly, before it is legally required to do so in 2040.

“Immediate implementation of demand reduction to avoid further lowering of groundwater levels would cause direct farm revenue losses of $182 million per year and require fallowing an average of 40,000 acres per year within the Subbasin,” and would result in job loss, the plan says.

It also says the analysis anticipated 85 wells have already gone dry between 2015 and 2019. There is no easy way to confirm whether that happened, because domestic wells are generally only tracked when new wells are drilled.

The cost to replace another 200 domestic wells that are expected to be detwatered is around $3.39 million, the plan says.

“Continued drawdown of groundwater levels during the (groundwater sustainability plan) implementation period would be caused primarily by pumping for irrigation because domestic wells are a smaller share of subbasin pumping,” according to appendix three of the Madera Subbasin plan, “whereas the cost of domestic well replacement would be borne by domestic well users,

The Madera Subbasin Coordination Committee plans to create a domestic well mitigation program to offset the costs associated with wells going dry.

Who will pay for that program hasn’t yet been codified.

So far, the costs are borne by residents who own the wells, or public funds through the California Office of Emergency Services or State Water Resources Control Board.

Madera County intends to implement a rate structure for water users to help cover the costs of the program, according to Stephanie Anagnoson, director of the county Water and Natural Resources Department. Domestic well users may be required to pay in.

A well pumps water for thousands of trees planted at the height of the drought in Madera County. Residents are outraged that the farming operation has been allowed to continue lowering the water table in an area already plagued with water issues. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Land use, thirsty crops and water allocations

When Michael Noblett grandfather’s family grew grapes in the Madera area in the 1930s, he said, “they were all able to hand dig their well.”

He thinks about how that compares to irrigation wells drilled these days.

“When we first moved in, it was empty, open grazing land. Years after that, the big farming industrial people came and put in thousands of acres of figs, pistachios and almonds,” Noblett said. “Their wells are between 1,000 feet and 1,500 feet and they’re pumping much more than the households.”

He has kept receipts of what well maintenance has cost. Some of the expenses may be normal maintenance, but the groundwater levels likely contributed to the total cost that’s reached over $30,000 in the last 10 years.

The water level of their original domestic well drilled in 1995 was 160 feet. The pump was lowered to 273 feet at a cost of $4,312 in 2010. In the midst of the drought in 2016, they lowered the pump again to 306 feet for $1,500, Noblett said.

In August, they had a new well drilled to 550 feet. The water level was measured at 358 feet, and the pump was set at 455 feet, according to Noblett’s records.

Rochelle Noblett said their neighbors in every direction have had similar experiences, and she blames unregulated industrial-sized agriculture.

“They need to stop that. As much as I love farmers, there comes a time when enough is enough,” she said. “Your millions are becoming billions, and it’s on the backs of everyone else. These are not the family farms we envisioned back in the day.”

That’s one reason Noblett ran for county supervisor in 2014, campaigning on the platform that development should be examined carefully and the “availability of water should be at the center of that discussion.”

She lost to Brett Frazier, who said during the campaign that supervisors need to ensure there are “legally binding assurances” from developers that they will provide adequate water needs.

An analysis of land use activities in the Madera Subbasin confirms what the Norbetts say they saw: Land use activities with relatively low water use decreased significantly between 1989 and 2015 in the area, while high water-use activities increased in the same time period, according to the groundwater sustainability plan.

Idle land decreased from 32,783 acres to 4,198 acres and pasture or alfalfa acreage decreased from 30,069 to 7,581 acres, while the amount of land used for orchards more than doubled, from 46,219 to 108,407, and a quarter of that growth happened during the drought.

What activities occur on land can affect both water quantity and quality, which is why decisions about what crops are grown or how land is developed matters to existing neighboring homes.

“Land use has a critical role to play in ensuring folks have access to safe drinking water,” said Michael Claiborne, an attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Crop selection matters, he said, because the demand for water increases when fields are converted from annual crops to orchards, for example. And annual crops give farmers the flexibility to manage water use based on drought conditions, by choosing whether to plant a crop one year or the next, for example.

“It also matters where development occurs,” he said. “When you develop natural lands and pave over them, you prevent natural groundwater recharge.”

He promotes the concept of in-filling, or building homes on undeveloped lots or increasing housing density in existing urban areas.

Firestone said some counties are proactively reducing reliance on private wells for vulnerable communities, by requiring all new housing developments to connect into existing water systems, for example.

“Others require private wells to regularly test for contaminants that are common in the area. Other local agencies are even providing well testing services themselves,” Firestone said. “The state provides statewide analysis of water quality risk to private wells and some limited funding to address existing challenges in the most impacted communities. Local groundwater agencies are tasked with managing supply.”

Madera County does have a policy requiring developers of new subdivisions to have a net neutral effect on water supplies, meaning new homes cannot draw down groundwater further without recharging the basin, for example.

The county, which acts as a groundwater sustainability agency, is also working to develop a water allocation system that supervisors intend to vote on and adopt by the end of the year.

Farmers would be granted an allocation of groundwater amount, and then would pay a penalty or fine if they pumped more. Existing wells are not generally metered, however. So to measure water use, the county hired a vendor to collect satellite evaporation data.

That doesn’t directly regulate land use, but it may influence land use decisions by landowners about crop selection, for example, according to Anagnoson. The county also has a grant to consider whether to create an incentive structure for land owners to take land out of production.

“There are options out there that use less water. Olives that make olive oil seem to use a remarkable low amount of water,” Anagnoson said. “But, you know, none of this moves quickly.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Michael Claiborne.

Corrected Oct 10, 2020

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