Science, Tech & Environment

California's drought is big business for drillers

After three consecutive years of insufficient rainfall, California is facing its most severe drought since tracking began in 2000, according to the federal U.S. Drought Monitor.

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Residents of the state are inundated with daily reminders to conserve water and take steps to avoid risking wildfires. For most of the nation, however, the drought’s impact is felt at the grocery store, where the cost of fruits and vegetables is expected rise at least six percent this year.

Though the drought has farmers worried about the future of their crops, it has also meant a booming business for water-well drillers who bore thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface to access giant aquifers of groundwater.

In a normal year, only a third of California’s total water supply comes from groundwater.   But because of a lack of rain, supply this year the amount has nearly doubled according to Thomas Harter, a groundwater specialist at UC Davis.

That demand is being felt in Southern California which home to Rottman Drilling, a family run water well drilling business north of Los Angeles.   The company has been going strong for eight decades and this year might be their best yet.  President Matt Rottman says an improving economy and drought-time regulations on irrigating from other sources are two of the reasons why his company is in such high demand.   He’s booked for work through 2016.  

“We almost shut our doors in 2011 because of business was so bad,” he says, “and now we've got more work than we know to do with. It's always been a boom and bust industry.”

Rottman says the stakes couldn’t be higher for the farmers.  Many who call him grow water-intesivie specialty crops such as almonds and walnuts.  Rottman says farmers are willing to invest wells that can cost anywhere from a quarter million to a million dollars to insure these crops survive.

He explains, “If you're growing row crops, which would be like potatoes, lettuce, carrots, if you absolutely can't get the water, you can just fallow the field for a season; it's not going to hurt you.” “If you've got permanent crops - trees, grapes, kiwis, things like that - those are the ones that we have to push to make sure that they have water, because you can't let those go.”

Given this potential loss, many are looking up warily at the California skies, afraid of what might come next if the drought persists. “It would be devastating,” Rottman says. “If you drive through the San Joaquin Valley it looks like a forest. There's the orange trees, lemons, almonds, walnuts. It's a man made forest. Those would all dry up and disappear, not to mention the unemployment. It would be like the depression all over again.”

Scary as that sounds, Rottman wants to be clear: this is all still hypothetical. “I don’t think it's to that point yet. I don’t know that we're in a panic mode yet. This won't last forever,” he assures.   But for now, he’s not complaining.

  • Duda Test Pump Picture.JPG

    This is what 2,500 gallons per minute looks like. Taken from a farm in Ventura County, California.

    Credit:

    Matt Rottman

  • Me on the Rig.JPG

    Rottman Drilling President Matt Rottman poses in front of his water well drilling rigs.

    Credit:

    Matt Rottman

  • P6250189.JPG

    Rottman Drilling has dug wells as deep as 3,000 feet sometimes costing over a million dollars.

    Credit:

    Matt Rottman