Terry Gross: Am I right in saying that Central California has more water to draw on than the rest of California?
Mark Arax: The middle of California is a land rich with rivers and it’s also a land that a long, long time ago was ocean. It was an inland sea, so a lot of that water percolated down—there’s a deep, deep, deep aquifer here and that aquifer is what farmers have long drawn on to grow their crops. Their water was then supplemented by surface water, as it’s called, from the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, but when those projects are dry like they are now, the farmer then returns to deep, deep, into the earth to pump out his groundwater. This water, if you were to do carbon testing or something on it, it would go back thousands and thousands of years in some cases, and as it’s being pumped out, the land is sinking and that’s because the aquifer is starting to collapse. All those layers and layers that have water in them—water is being sucked out. The land then is collapsing on itself.
As much this state is regulated and as cutting edge as we are in terms of environmental laws and everything else, we have never regulated the groundwater in California and we’re just starting to now. No one knows how many wells have been stuck into the ground, how many pumps are pumping out water. They had no idea. The counties aren’t required to even keep that information.