Will California start drilling deep for water?

california water
© Irrigation and oil production in Kern County near Bakersfield, California. (Rob Jackson, Stanford University)

Stanford scientists find a 'water windfall' deep underground; its viability as a resource is problematic, its protection is essential.

In the middle of its fifth year of a severe lack of water, California has been in a state of drought emergency declared by Governor Jerry Brown since 2014. The Golden State is in desperate need of water, which is why new research by scientists from Stanford University is so newsworthy. They found loads of previously unaccounted for groundwater … it’s just that it is very deep.

"It's not often that you find a 'water windfall,' but we just did," says study co-author Robert Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at Stanford. "There's far more fresh water and usable water than we expected."

Earlier estimates of the state’s groundwater are old and extend only to water found at a maximum depth of 1,000 feet; not much was known about water that existed in deeper aquifers.

With new data, however, the researchers found that when deeper sources of groundwater are included, the amount of usable groundwater in the Central Valley increases to 2,700 cubic kilometers; almost three times the previous estimates.

But of course, just because there’s a bunch of water underground doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a viable resource – aside from the expense of pumping water that is 3,000 feet underground. From a statement for the study:

Without proper studies, tapping these deeper aquifers might also exacerbate the ground subsidence – the gradual sinking of the land – that is already happening throughout the Central Valley. Groundwater pumping from shallow aquifers has already caused some regions to drop by tens of feet.

Some of the deep aquifer water is also brinier – higher in salt concentration – than shallower water, so desalination or other treatment will be required before it can be used for agriculture or for drinking.

Oil and gas drilling activities are occurring directly into as much as 30 percent of the sites where the deep groundwater resources are located. For example, in Kern County, where the core of California's oil and gas industry is centered near the city of Bakersfield, one in every six cases of oil and gas activities was occurring directly into freshwater aquifers. For useable water – water that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems drinkable if treated – the number was one in three.

The most important takeaway from the study may not be about getting the water out, but simply that it's there and we need to be aware of it in order not to ruin it; to "better characterize and protect deep groundwater aquifers not only in California but in other parched regions as well."

"What we are saying is that no one is monitoring deep aquifers. No one's following them through time to see how and if the water quality is changing," says study co-author Mary Kang from Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. "We might need to use this water in a decade, so it's definitely worth protecting."

You can get a good idea of the threat the water is facing by watching the video below of study co-author, Robert Jackson.

Will California start drilling deep for water?
Stanford scientists find a 'water windfall' deep underground; its viability as a resource is problematic, its protection is essential.

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