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San Diego County’s Backcountry Residents Drill Deeper For Water

Video by Richard Klein

San Diego's East County doesn't rely on imported water, but the region is still struggling as residents put pressure on the groundwater supply.

San Diego's East County residents don't look to the north or east for water. They look down.

The mountain region is one of the few areas in Southern California that gets no imported water, but groundwater supplies are limited. That situation is getting extra attention because of California's drought.

Bill Zaiser has been farming in this sun-baked valley near Jamul since 1981, and one thing that's never dried up here is hope.

Photo credit: Richard Klein

A water faucet is shown on the Rancho Del Sol farm near Jamul, May 8, 2015.

"It is kinda like fishing," Zaiser said. "If you don't have any optimism you don't have anything. And I keep being optimistic."

Zaiser sat in a golf cart looking over the productive 40 acre slice of land he named Rancho Del Sol. The certified organic farm produces a variety of produce and citrus fruit.

It is a business that requires water. Plastic irrigation tubes run along the rows of fruit trees. There is even a plastic tub near a well that allows Zaiser to put out water for bees that pollinate the crop.

Zaiser counts himself lucky that he has always been able to drill for enough water.

"Several neighbors are trucking water. They don't have any other option," Zaiser said. "They just have to pay a truck to bring them a couple of thousand gallons of water each time."

Wells are getting deeper

Zaiser has been able to tap into groundwater over the years. But he's finding out there are limits to that supply. He has 11 wells scattered around his property. Only two still draw water, and they are both less productive.

"What can you say? You just have to go deeper. That's what we've done on the well we were just at. We just deepened that well from 872 (feet). Where as the other one that was 1,100 feet deep got nothing. So, its just where you find it, ya know," Zaiser said.

That dry hole in the fractured rock cost Zaiser $25,000 — money that would have paid for a lot of trucked water.

Zaiser has a drilling crew on his property on this day. Tim Guishard makes a living helping East County residents drill and maintain wells.

Photo credit: Richard Klein

Tim Guishard and his crew work on a well on the Rancho Del Sol farm near Jamul, on May 8, 2015.

"Any time you drill a well, it's a hard choice. There is no guarantee when you drill a well that you're going to hit water," Guishard said. "I've often said well drilling is the only form of legalized gambling off the reservation in the state of California."

Guishard was on the farm to fix one of the newly deepened wells because the water monitor was busted. Knowing the exact water level allows a farmer like Zaiser to figure out just how much he can draw out of the ground to feed his crops.

"This is called a well sounder," Zaiser said as he held up a wire wrapped around a wheel like dispenser. "And this is what we use for measuring water levels in the well. When this gets down and hits the water, it beeps and that tells us that we've actually hit the water level."

But with people living in an around this valley drawing down the groundwater, there is a race for deeper wells. Deeper wells pull out water that won't be easily replaced.

"The water that we're drawing out of this well, probably, is 800 to 900 years old. And so a rainfall tomorrow isn't going to do anything to help that situation," Guishard said.

The questions are not new

Wes Danskin gets a lot of questions about groundwater in the back country because he is an hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Water Science Center.

"We're slowly getting a little less water. People are drilling deeper wells. They're wondering why their wells don't recover as much as they used to. And that's all fairly predictable by us using more water than is fairly recharged," Danskin said.

The East County's geology is much like the Sierra Nevadas. The region doesn't get any of the imported water from Northern California or the Colorado River, and the fractured rock relies on rainwater to percolate through the ground to recharge underground fissures.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A relief map in the USGS office in San Diego, The picture shows fractured rock geology near Jamul, on June 8, 2015.

"Typically our wells were 600 feet deep, 800 feet deep. Now they're more typically 1,200, 1,400 feet" Danskin said. "And the cost is very nonlinear. It doubles. It quadruples with each additional distance."

Groundwater isn't regulated in the East County. Once a well is permitted and drilled, there are no restrictions on how much water can be taken.

State officials are looking at regulating groundwater supplies under some of the state's rich agricultural valleys.

Those sand and gravel aquifers are easy to monitor and manage.

Doing that monitoring and managing in more mountainous fractured rock areas is technically much harder, but shrinking water supplies might force officials to take that on.

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