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"It's Very Extreme" - Drought & Drug Cartels Drain California's Aquifers At Record Rate

"If there's no water for people to live, and you don’t have the basic necessities of life, your population is going to leave," warns the emergency services manager of one California town, warning that as the drought continues (and is not set to ease anytime soon), "you could see the economy of this area just decimated." But as farmers face the catastrophe with "water levels dropping at an incredibly rapid rate in some places - like 100 ft a year - 10 times expected," there is another drain on the dry state's water sources. As The FT reports, "Marijuana cultivation is the biggest drought-related crime we’re facing right now," with up to 80 million gallons of water per day stolen by heavily armed marijuana cartels.

 

 

As The FT reports,

Lieutenant John Nores Jr estimates that each of the state’s 2,000-odd cartel pot farms contains an average of 5,000 plants, and that each one sucks up between eight and 11 gallons of water a day, depending on the time of year. That means at least 80m gallons of water – enough for more than 120 Olympic-size swimming pools – is probably being stolen daily in a state that in some parts is running dry as a three-year-old drought shrinks reservoirs, leaves fields fallow and dries wells to the point that some 1,300 people have had no tap water in their homes for months.

 

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“Marijuana cultivation is the biggest drought-related crime we’re facing right now,” says Lt Nores as he pokes at a heap of plastic piping the growers used to divert water from a dried-up creek near the plantation.

 

The theft of 80m gallons of water a day by heavily armed marijuana cartels is undoubtedly a serious concern, not least when the entire state is affected by drought and 58 per cent is categorised as being in “exceptional drought”, as defined by the government-funded US Drought Monitor.

However, this is a tiny fraction of the water used legally every day...

and towns across California plunge into chaos...

The crisis is more severe because a decline in snowfall has compounded problems caused by the lack of rain. The state’s mountain snowpack was just 18 per cent of its average earlier this year, a situation scientists say could be repeated as the climate warms.

 

As a result eight major reservoirs were last week holding less than half their average storage for this time of year.

 

Reservoir levels sank worryingly when a bad drought hit California in 1976-77, but there were fewer than 22m people in the state then, compared with 38.3m now.

 

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In a normal year, aquifers supply about a third of the state’s water. In a drought, that can rise to as much as 60 per cent. But one of the most alarming aspects of this drought is that groundwater levels are plummeting.

 

“Water levels are dropping at an incredibly rapid rate in some places, like 100ft a year,” says Michelle Sneed, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey who monitors groundwater in the Central Valley. “It is very extreme. Ordinarily, talking with hydrologists, if you would talk about a well dropping 10ft a year that would really get somebody’s attention, like wow! Really? Ten feet? And now we’re 10 times that.”

 

The depletion of this vital resource is not just a concern because it is so difficult to refill some aquifers when drought eventually subsides. It is also creating extraordinary rates of subsidence because as the groundwater disappears the land above it can sink. In one part of the valley, land has been subsiding by almost a foot a year, which Ms Sneed says is among the fastest rates anywhere in the world.

 

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The town of East Porterville has more pressing groundwater worries. At least 1,300 people in the town rely for drinking and bathing water on wells that have gone dry as the drought has deepened.

 

“We ran out of water in June,” says Donna Johnson, a 72-year-old retired counsellor who delivers water to dozens of dry households from the back of her pick-up truck.

 

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But the severity of this drought finally led to a package of measures signed into law in September requiring local agencies to monitor and manage wells, or face state intervention. Some critics say it is too little too late: many local agencies will have five to seven years to come up with plans, and until 2040 to implement them. Still, it is a lot better than nothing, say others.

 

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That is small comfort when the latest outlook from the US Climate Prediction Center suggests the drought “will likely persist or intensify in large parts of the state” this winter.

 

“If there’s no water for people to live, and you don’t have the basic necessities of life, your population is going to leave,” says Andrew Lockman, the emergency services manager responsible for East Porterville. “Our primary economic driver is agriculture. If there’s no water to water crops, we’re not going to have any agriculture business, so you could see the economy of this area just decimated.”

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