Take groundwater, for instance. I just learned I’ve been wrong about groundwater for a long time.
With the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors declaring a state of emergency in connection with record low levels of water in the lakes that keep the Russian River flowing, I trotted out my long-held misguided notion about groundwater. It goes like this: We don’t need to worry about water rationing here along the river, because our water comes from the aquifer, that is to say from way under the river, which will be there so long as the river keeps flowing at all. In other words, I told my friends and neighbors, we have access to an ever-replenishing supply of groundwater, so we can use all the water we want. What we don’t use just moves on past us and eventually ends up in the sea.
Trouble is, the other day I trotted out this brilliant idea for my brother to consider. He used to work for the State Water Agency. One of his jobs, he tells me, was “running around all of California north of the Tehachapis to see … where groundwater was being removed faster than it was being replenished. In some areas so much water was being taken out, the surface was sinking, some houses sank a little, and some streams started flowing in directions opposite to their prior courses.” And this was in the 1950s. Now, I’ve read, over pumping of groundwater has lowered the surface as much as thirty feet in some places.
Brother Bill also sends an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which states that, since 1980, the position of the Earth’s poles has shifted four meters. That’s well over four yards, folks. This means the Earth’s axis of rotation around the sun is shifting, influencing the coming and going of seasons.
The reason for the shift, we’re told, is the steady movement of water from the land to the seas which is changing the distribution of weight on our planet. The main source of this movement is from the melting of ice caps, but another source is the pumping of groundwater. Water pumped up from the ground eventually flows to the sea, in our case, through the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner. According to the Bulletin, “in the past 50 years, humanity has removed 18 trillion tons of water from deep underground reservoirs without it being replaced.”
My brother’s favorite word is “complicated.” Every time I think I’ve understood something he tells me about the Earth and its ways, something like groundwater in this instance, he says, “You’ve got it about right, but it’s more complicated than that.” And so, I delved into it a bit and found that groundwater in western Sonoma County is especially complicated. In these parts, I learned, some of our groundwater lies in deep reservoirs and is as much as 20,000 years old. Some of it is near the surface and fluctuates widely with the seasons.
The big issue is how much of the groundwater we pump to the surface is being replenished, and that’s even more complicated. Far as I can tell, it varies depending on all sorts of complicating factors like the shape and makeup of canyons and mountains, all of which are various around here. I’m thinking that our growing awareness of complicating factors is a big reason it’s easy to be wrong about things these days. It’s good we have people like my brother to point out those complicating factors or else we could be wrong about things and go around thinking we’re right, as I did for decades about groundwater.
The upshot of it all, however, is disappointingly simple. We really do need to conserve water all over California, including western Sonoma County. And if one agency or another tells us water will be rationed this summer, it is fully justified.