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NASA points out the drought

Professor Tells It Like It Is – No Constraints on Agriculture Depleting Our Common Water Source


Last updated 5/22/2015 at 3:23pm


This trio of images obtained October 6, 2014 from NASA/JPL-Caltech depicts satellite observations of declining water storage in California as seen by NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites in June 2002 (L), June 2008 (C) and June 2014 (R).

Jay Famiglietti, a senior NASA JPL water scientist and professor at U.C.I. spoke to a crowd at the Performing Arts Center theater on April 10, and again to a full room at the ABDNHA library the following day. Professor Famiglietti speaks worldwide on one of the most critical issues of our day and works at the highest level of research on the future of water resources. Famiglietti said it was surprising how may people don't understand the differences and interconnectedness between groundwater and surface water. He then explained that an aquifer is a geologic unit of soil or rock that is porous and can store enough water that you can justify drilling a well into it to pump the water out. About 60 percent of our world's freshwater is frozen in ice sheets and glaciers. Around 30 percent is in the groundwater, leaving the rest as surface water. Approximately one-third of the world relies on groundwater as its primary water source. Huge amounts of this groundwater are used for irrigation and are just now beginning to be monitored in California now that the prolonged Drought has aggravated the water crisis. "In most cases where we're using a lot of groundwater, we're clearly using it faster than it can be replaced," he warned. The Professor mentioned that he was shocked as he was coming down the grade- looking down into the valley and seeing the amount of agriculture going on here. Should farming take place in a desert community with a dwindling water source? In general, if you own the land, you can drill a well and if you hit water can pump out as much as you want- even if the water is being pulled from your neighbor's property. Famiglietti said water laws and water rights were put together before we really understood how water moves around and how the water cycle works, and this allows inequities to come into play. He gave an example of a big name water corporation coming into a place and pumping away, bottling and selling the water, while the neighbors wells are going dry. The combined data from USGS monitoring and GRACE satellite imagery from 1962 to the present, shows long-term depletion of groundwater in much of the lower half of the country. There is a pattern of little recharge in the wet period and then big declines in the Drought period. What needs to happen now that we have this data, is to stop the decline. Sewage recycling is being used in Orange County to replenish the aquifer. This is one solution that is working for now but as Famiglietti said, "We're quite advanced in our thinking about how the earth and climate works but we need to understand the full environmental impacts and interactions in ways we didn't, even twenty-five years ago."

According to the USGS Borrego has somewhere between 35-50 years of water left in the upper aquifer. Hundreds of years remain in the middle and lower aquifers.

The issue, according to Lyle Brecht of the BWD, is not running out of water. "The issue is running out of water that is high quality and inexpensive as we currently have."

To achieve a balance in our aquifer we must decrease the amount of water withdrawn by 70 percent. Famiglietti said "There are decisions your community is going to have to make based on total information." It will take about four times as many pumps to draw the same amount of water from the middle and lower aquifers, and studies are not yet complete to show how much that water will be degraded. Famiglietti said as you go deeper and deeper the water isn't going to be any good and will not be economically feasible to pump. They are getting down to these deeper levels in many places in the world. "This is where we live," Famiglietti said. "We live on top of the water supply. What happens on the surface directly affects what happens below us. We understand that now and have understood it for a few decades but we went a couple of centuries in this country without really knowing that we have contaminated an awful lot of our groundwater, maybe even most of it." He noted that contamination is ongoing with agricultural use of fertilizers and animal waste.

A question from the audience at the library pertained to having to go deeper and deeper in hopes of finding usable water. "How concerned are you now, that we've ruined our chances through a variety of industries, not just oil and gas?" Famiglietti said, "I'm concerned about all of it. It's a huge problem and some of it we don't even know about. The disposal of all the fracking stuff, disposal of the fluids and the sacrificial aquifers... At the moment," he admitted, "I am seriously overwhelmed by the scope of the problem." Famiglietti uses satellites for research and develops new methods for satellites as well. He is now focused on California and builds the computer models to bring the information together. He spoke about subsidence- where the ground actually deflates as you pull the water up. Once you get to this point, you can't pump it back up. Whatever is on top of the ground- roads, structures, whatever, will sink down visibly. "This is a big problem in the Central Valley. Once this happens, you not only have to deal with the new topography, but you've lost that water storage space.

Parts of the Central Valley are sinking at a rate of more than a foot a year. Famiglietti has given congressional testimony and written papers on the water crisis and it's gotten a lot of attention lately. He can only hope that people are becoming aware of the gravity of the situation and will act on the evidence presented. He highly recommends a documentary (Last Call at the Oasis) that shows how wide-ranging and of epic proportions the Drought crisis has become. "There is no question that times are changing in California," he said. He further added that because Borrego Springs is a desert community it isn't clear whether it can sustain agriculture or even the golf courses. High-efficiency appliances and low-flush toilets are important; conservation and efficiency are step one. "If you have grass, get rid of it. It doesn't mean you can't have a park, you have to have some green spaces, but these are fundamental things you can do now." Famiglietti is bringing issues that concern Borrego to the state and regional boards, and will use Borrego's situation as an example in future conversations.

"You have a single water source and the residents are struggling to conserve and there are no constraints on the agriculture."

He said we cannot afford to be naive about the situation, but also said the conversation needs to go beyond finger-pointing to a discussion about the multiple competing demands for water, where we can figure out, as a community, how to balance our needs. "That is the goal of the satellite stuff. The computer modeling that we do is to provide a tool so you can run the scenario and look at the impacts. I love to eat, we all do, and we need to find this balance and get away from us vs. them. We're really past the tipping point of water availability here. About 50% of farming water runs off and evaporates. There are ways to trap the outgoing losses, such as in greenhouse agriculture, which reduces water loss by covering the crops and soil to minimize evaporation. That's something we need to be looking at here in the U.S."

Famiglietti says the only reason he can sleep at night, knowing what he knows, is that he is helping to provide the data for people to make the decisions, however complex, and helping to educate the public about the consequences of not acting on this knowledge. Famiglietti's presentations were the first of a series to be presented by ABDNHA concerning "Desert Living."

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