Natural Systems, Human Nature & Common Ground:
The story of groundwater
Groundwater, in some ways, is as simple as it sounds: it is the water stored beneath Earth’s surface. It is found in soil and porous rock aquifers. It is used for agriculture, supplying at least half of the irrigation water used to grow the world's food. In the United States alone, 50% of people across the country rely on it for drinking water, including almost everyone living in rural areas.
But groundwater also serves another critical purpose: as the key water reserve during times of drought.
As the climate continues to warm, severe drought is becoming increasingly common and more extreme in already dry areas like the Western United States. But there is another factor at play: over-consumption. Though it is invaluable, groundwater is invisible; hidden to the public eye, poorly regulated, and often mismanaged. In arid climates especially, groundwater is being pumped at a rate that far exceeds how fast it can be naturally replenished. As it stands in California, anyone with the resources to do so can drill a well as deep and as large as they can afford. In essence, those with means - typically large corporations - get the largest straw. And there is no limit to the amount of groundwater that can be drawn up through it.
This corporate overconsumption comes at a cost -- not just to the land, but to its people, communities, family farms, and our global water security. California's 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) aims to change this - but will it be too late?
About Sweet Oranges:
Heading west from her house, Director Nora Sweeney explores the back roads off of California State Route 126, finding small, historic towns, farms, and railway tracks nestled between mountains and orchards - a landscape that evokes a dream of California’s past.
Directors: Nora Sweeney
Length: 18 minutes
Shot on 16mm Film
It resembles what migrant workers might have envisioned when traveling west in search of work in the 1930s, a vibrant, fertile promised land. This migration continues. In an orange grove, she meets Jaime, Blanca, and Hugo, a group of orange pickers from Michoacan, Mexico, who share with her their songs, dreams, aspirations, and thoughts about work.
Directors: François Verster, Simon Wood
Length: 11 minutes
About Water & Power: A California Heist
What happens when corporate power commodifies our natural resources? Water & Power examines the historic seven year drought in modern-day California, exposing the complex and often back-room deals of development, appropriation, and commodification that have contributed to the state's past and present water crises.
Director: Marina Zenovich
Length: 87 minutes
Like a modern day Chinatown, the film investigates wealthy agricultural corporations - able to siphon water through the privatization of the state's water system - while telling the story of neighboring communities where water has become scarce. Water & Power zooms-in on the political and economic dynamics of extraction through interviews with 25 experts representing diverse public and private water interests.
Our very own Jay Famiglietti, Director of the Global Institute for Water Security and host of the LTAW Podcast, is a featured expert and served as the research advisor to the film.
To explore the ever-present issues of power and access tied to groundwater, we want to share two films with you: Sweet Oranges (2014) and Water & Power: A California Heist (2017).
This set of featured films is inspired by the very first LTAW event held at UC Irvine in 2009, featuring the neo-noir classic Chinatown (1974), as well as the LTAW Podcast episode, Groundwater: Go Deep or Go Dry is Unsustainable.
At the heart of both the feature-length documentary, Water & Power, and the 16mm short film, Sweet Oranges, is the nexus of food and water, centering the stories of migrant workers and generational farmers who work the land - and often have the least power to benefit from it.
These films were available in our Let's Talk About Water Virtual Theatre from February 25 - March 22. You can find them now at the links below.
"For me, a well running dry is one of the most pronounced manifestations of water scarcity. Somebody is losing access to water that is impacting their ability to irrigate land....but also impacting the ability of people exercising the right to withdraw groundwater."
- Groundwater expert Dr. Debra Perrone
on the LTAW Podcast
Groundwater: Go Deep or Go Dry is Unsustainable
Debra Perrone, Assistant Professor UC Santa Barbara, discusses the dwindling groundwater supply affecting 12 million US wells caused by global warming and over-consumption. The world relies on groundwater, which is getting harder and harder to find. With groundwater close to the surface vanishing, well-drillers are forced to turn to deep drilling for corporate, agricultural, and domestic water needs. But going deep this way is far more expensive and increasingly yields contaminated water.
Natural Systems, Human Nature, Common Ground
On Friday, Feb. 26 we hosted a virtual panel discussion with experts to discuss groundwater and the themes explored in our featured films. You can view the recorded panel discussion now via the video above.
(Left to Right) MODERATOR: Jay Famiglietti, PhD - Executive Director at the Global Institute for Water Security. PANELISTS: Neno Kukurić, PhD- Director of the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC); Debra Perrone, PhD - Assistant Professor at University of California Santa Barbara; Michael Nemeth, M.Sc., P.Ag., EP - Senior Advisor, Agricultural and Environmental Sustainability at Nutrien.
SEASON II, EPISODE 5
The Future of Groundwater in California: Lessons in Sustainable Management from Across the West - Environmental Defense Fund & Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska
The Global Groundwater Crisis - Jay Famiglietti, Nature Climate Change, 2014
One-Quarter of World’s Agriculture Grows in Highly Water-Stressed Areas - World Resources Institute
Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California's Central Valley - AGU Geophysical Research Letters, 2011. J. S. Famiglietti, M. Lo, S. L. Ho, J. Bethune, K. J. Anderson , T. H. Syed, S. C. Swenson, C. R. de Linage, M. Rodell
Droughts exposed California’s thirst for groundwater. Now, the state hopes to refill its aquifers - Erik Stokstad, Science Magazine, 2020