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Farmers drilling wells as groundwater limits loom

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Farmers in central California are drilling more and deeper wells than ever before to pump water for their fruit orchards and sprawling fields following government imposed limits on surface water.

Two years after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill designed to limit groundwater pumping, new wells are going in faster and deeper than ever, according to an analysis by the Sacramento Bee published Sunday.

Farmers dug about 2,500 wells in the San Joaquin Valley last year alone, the highest number on record. That was five times the annual average for the previous 30 years, the newspaper reported.

Well water is keeping agriculture alive in much of the valley through five years of California's historic drought and farmers say they will continue drilling and pumping because it's the only way to keep their farms afloat and turn a profit.

The new groundwater law won't become fully implemented for until 2040.

"Just like a guy that owns a hardware store who sells nothing but shovels, say I cut you off and decide not to supply you with shovels, are you going to close your store or are you going to get shovels from somebody else?" said Wayne Western Jr., a wine grape grower near Firebaugh in Fresno County who has been relying almost exclusively on well water the past three years.

"It's a business. I'll make no apologies for trying to stay in business and being successful," he said.

One reason behind the increase in wells is farmers with older, shallower wells are afraid of losing water to neighbors digging deeper wells. So they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill their own new wells. Farmers are expected to spend $303 million this year alone to pump groundwater, according to UC Davis researchers.