‘We will come out of this’

As drought weighs heavy on farmers, county water experts remain positive

Paul Gosselin, director of Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation, emphasized during a recent meeting in Durham that local groundwater levels will eventually rebound.

Paul Gosselin, director of Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation, emphasized during a recent meeting in Durham that local groundwater levels will eventually rebound.

PHOTO By Howard Hardee

Know your well:
A number of free resources are available online for farmers and well owners alike, including www.wellowner.org, which includes a tool to locate water-well contractors; wwwcimis.water.ca.gov/cimis/data.jsp, which provides statewide data on irrigation for registered users; and www.wateright.org, which includes an irrigation-scheduling tool useful for managing low water supplies.

With several rainy days last week and an impressive rainstorm serving as a grand finale on Sunday night, one might forget that the North State is in the middle of a severe drought. But local farmers—those whose livelihoods are most directly threatened by the dry conditions—are very much aware that it’s going to take more than one storm for groundwater levels to rebound to normal.

Christina Buck, a water resources scientist with Butte County’s Department of Water and Resource Conservation (DWRC), underscored that point during a county-hosted meeting concerning groundwater conditions at Durham Veterans Memorial Hall off the Midway on Monday (Feb. 10). “This last storm was pretty significant, but we need a whole lot more precipitation to make up for how dry it’s been,” she said in addressing dozens of concerned farmers from the Durham-Dayton area south of Chico.

In fact, if California were to receive average rainfall between now and the end of winter, “it would still be the third-driest year on record,” said Vickie Newlin, assistant director of the DWRC, who also attended the meeting.

Though the forum briefly touched on statewide drought issues (see “The big squeeze,” Cover feature, page 20), it mostly provided information specific to groundwater conditions in Durham-Dayton. The story is a familiar one throughout Butte County—of the eight wells in the area equipped with data loggers, two were at historic lows when they were recorded last fall, while groundwater levels in general have been in steady decline over the last 15 years or so.

Newlin explained that the drought pattern could amount to “really dire economic and environmental problems.” As the water table is continually lowered, she said, it becomes more expensive for well owners to pump. Since there is no help forthcoming from the California State Water Project, which announced at the beginning of February that it will stop releasing water from its reservoirs—including Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta—many farmers will be forced to reduce their number of crops, while some will have “a choice of pumping groundwater or not farming at all,” Newlin said. As a result, many seasonal farmworkers likely will find themselves unemployed this summer.

Even with such hardship appearing unavoidable, and the drought’s indefinite duration representing a reasonable cause for uncertainty and fear, DWRC Director Paul Gosselin stressed that it won’t last forever.

“We’re not sure when [the drought] will end, but it will end,” he said. “We’re seeing that, historically, the water basin does recover, and we’re looking forward to that. We will come out of this.”

So, what are local farmers and well owners to do in the meantime?

While acknowledging that much is out of the community’s hands, Buck and Newlin made several suggestions, including coordinating with neighbors on when to pump in order to give groundwater sufficient time to replenish; receiving an annual well checkup from a licensed well driller; keeping a well log to keep track of groundwater levels; and reporting abnormal groundwater levels to the county. (Go to www.tinyurl.com/buttedrought to make a report.)