Stimulus funds drill more wells as water vanishes

DOS PALOS — The government is spending $40 million in federal stimulus funds to pull water from underground aquifers in drought-stricken California, even as evidence is growing that the well-drilling boom could degrade the quality of water delivered to millions of residents.

Farmers, conservationists and engineers are criticizing the Interior Department's plan to spend taxpayer money on digging more wells, saying the approach risks marring the environment. Canals buckle, aquifers collapse and drinking water turns saltier due to so much pumping, and studies show that the state's water supplies are dwindling.

"We don't need any more straws going down there 'cause we're already doing a pretty good job of sucking it dry," said farmer Dan Errotabere, who has dug three wells as deep as 1,200 feet to irrigate his tomatoes, almonds and garlic in recent years. "We're using this water as a last resort, but pretty soon we're going to need a policy to protect ourselves from ourselves."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the government is targeting its well-drilling effort to serve remote communities and prop up California's agricultural economy, a $36 billion industry that grows nearly half the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Since the drought began in 2006, hundreds of new wells have been drilled and are pumping around the clock, tapping aquifers that date to the days of the dinosaurs.

In the last six years alone, the amount of water that has been lost from the aquifers coursing beneath the parched Central Valley would be nearly enough to fill the nation's largest reservoir, Nevada's Lake Mead, NASA researchers said Monday.

Salazar announced in July the department would send emergency drought aid from President Barack Obama's stimulus package to drill and renovate up to 135 wells. The total number has dropped since then.

The money will go to dig up to 50 new wells, retrofit up to 40 old ones and install temporary pipes and pumps to move water to crops and orchards, federal officials said. More than $2 million of the funds will be used for monitoring the real-time ecological impacts.