Dirty Water, Drying Wells: Central Californians Shoulder Drought’s Inequities

On a hot morning in August, the pressure gauge on Jesús Benítez’s well read about 10 pounds per square inch — barely enough for a trickle. 

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The 74-year-old has been living just outside of Visalia, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, for about 14 years, ever since he decamped from Downey in search of bigger skies and more space. But the once-green three-acre property that was meant to be his retirement haven is now dry, brittle and brown. 

Like a growing number of Central Californians, Benítez is bearing the brunt of the state’s punishing drought, which is evaporating the state’s surface water even as a frenzy of well drilling saps precious reserves underground. As a result, the number of dry wells in California has increased 70% since last year, while the number of Californians living with contaminated drinking water is at nearly 1 million. 

The majority of those people live in low-income communities and communities of color, state data show — and experts say heat, drought and climate change are only making those inequities worse.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle due to climate change,” said Gregory Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at UCLA. “Even with the progress we’re making, there are other losses that few people anticipated when it comes to heat impacts on water quality … and the pace at which people, and even larger systems, are at risk of running out of water entirely.”

Benítez is one of the unlucky people dealing with both. His sputtering well — the only source of water on his property — is polluted with nitrates, uranium and hexavalent chromium, which are becoming more concentrated as the water draws down. He and about 60 other residents in the area are trying to get connected to the water system that services the city of Visalia, but officials have told them the work may not be complete until 2024.

“I hope I don’t die without water by then,” Benítez said. The nearest municipal pipeline ends just about 100 feet from his property.

His story is becoming increasingly common in California, where an audit last month found that the State Water Resources Control Board “lacks the urgency necessary to ensure that failing water systems receive needed assistance in a timely manner.” The audit also noted that more than two-thirds of the water systems that have fallen below basic quality standards are in disadvantaged communities of significant financial need. 

“California is one of the largest economies in the world, and yet this is happening here,” said Pedro Calderón Michel, a spokesman with the nonprofit group the Community Water Center. All too often, he said, “the browner your skin, the browner your water will be.”

The problem is multifaceted. On the surface, climate change-fueled heat and drynessare contributing to a thirstier atmosphere that is sapping the state’s water, while a persistent lack of rain and snowpack means mounting deficits are not getting replenished. More than 97% of the the state is under severe, extreme or exceptional drought, and officials have said the first half of the year was the driest it’s ever been.

But much of the problem is happening underground, where California’s aquifers have long served as a reliable source of water, especially during dry times. In 2014, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a historic law intended to address the overpumping of those supplies. But the act laid out a timeline that spans more than two decades, and set off a rash of well drilling among those trying to beat the deadline, particularly in agricultural areas where wells are the lifeblood of the industry. 

Residents who rely on domestic wells are increasingly paying the price. Benítez’s well, for example, dried up after a neighbor installed a new, deeper well to help water 25 acres of silage corn, or corn used to feed dairy cows and other livestock. 

That neighbor, Frank Ferreira, said he spent $160,000 on the well, and he may need to dole out even more to dig deeper when it dries up. When asked whether the state has placed any limits on how deep he can go, Ferreira said, “not yet.”

While agriculture is a leading factor in groundwater depletion and contamination, the added layer of drought is exacerbating the problem, according to Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times


  1. Richard Cathcart says

    This is working fine Democrats: your decades-long PLAN to rid the CV of its farmers is working like charm! Next, be sure to never fund the SITES Reservoir, after all because of all our hard work and payoffs, there will never be enough or electricity to pump water uphill from the Sacramento River. Bravo on your successful ruination of the State of California! After previous “next”, be sure to sell cheapened CV land to China and do maker sure to build all of California’s new infrastructure with the same poor quality steel used in the rebuilt section of the Bay Bridge finished in 2013. Your are all such splendid specimens of cretanic majesties, so bi-awesome and rainbow-ish too.

    • RC is right.

      I’ll push this further. This is a long range plan to TAKE long held “mineral rights” that include water.

      Want to bet Slick will propose a law that will wipe out personal rights to water rights and wells?

      Not me.

  2. What the writer fails to mention is the why of ground water depletion. The powers that be has sent massive amounts of water to the ocean and has cut off surface water to farms. Surface water replenishes the Aquaphor, dilutes contaminates, and keeps people from lower water levels. In fact from 10-1-21 to 7-31-22, 5,564,000 AF has gone from fresh to salty. That is an amount much greater than is needed for salt intrusion. When these water systems were ran like designed, this wasn’t a problem. Our water systems were created to get us through 5 years of drought, now we have to cut back and it doesn’t get us through 2 or 3. The water board created this disaster, and it does seem like they target lower wage areas. The water board doesn’t care.

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