On the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, at 2,000 feet above sea level, the wells of Auberry, California, are among the first in the state to tap the perennial groundwater flowing out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The fresh supply of snowmelt, which accounts for more than 60 percent of California’s water supply and which, since the state’s drought began three years ago, has become one of the most precious commodities in the western United States, flows down the range’s granite bedrock slopes in subterranean streams dozens of feet beneath the houses, shops and farms of the tiny foothill community.
Scott Houston’s livelihood depends on those streams flowing, as well as on their not flowing. Several times a day, Houston, 49 years old and stout as a boulder, drives his eight-ton water truck to a parking lot two miles down the road from his home, connects a hose from the 2,035-gallon tank on the back of his rig to the valve of a fire hydrant atop a well, and fills it with groundwater purchased from the school district. Then he hauls the water to customers throughout northeastern Fresno County whose residential wells have run dry, for about $225 per delivery. With last winter’s Sierra snowpack at less than a fifth of what is considered normal, business this year is very good.
The inhabitants of Auberry have been hit hard by the drought, even by the standards of California’s parched Central Valley region. As the subsurface streams have dried up or thinned to a trickle, residents who can afford it have had to drill new wells. Unlike in the basin of the valley below, however, there is no uniformly distributed water table underlying the landscape; the water courses along discrete and disconnected pathways somewhere above the bedrock. You can make an educated guess as to where the water is flowing underfoot, but you can never be sure. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars to drive an industrial drill fifty feet into the earth and hit nothing but granite.
Auberry’s plight is exceptionally acute, but no part of Fresno County, or the 20,000-square-mile expanse of the Central Valley that envelops it, or the entire state of California, has been spared the water shortage. Some of Houston’s deliveries take him just a few miles down the road, such as to a nearby convalescent home that purchases around $15,000 worth of hauled water every month. Some take him down into the bottom of the valley, where the landscape changes rapidly from jagged hills, oak trees and igneous rock protrusions to flat, arid desert, sparse in naturally occurring vegetation but abundant in huge, irrigated fields of grapes, nuts and citrus. There, where the underground streams pouring out of the Sierras join and pool in a gargantuan aquifer system, landowners can be relatively certain there is water beneath their feet. The question is how far below, at what cost, and for how long.