Water beneath our feet transcript

- We're near the southeast shore of Tulare Lake in what might've been farmland five years ago. Watching a female grackle come across to land in the tules and redwing blackbirds and dozens of ibis. There's just a richness of wildlife here that are here because this is a restored remnant of the Tulare Lake. It's got the same kind of marsh vegetation and the same kind of birds. Tulare Lake, the old dry lake that had disappeared in 1898 was often described as the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. People often say, well, what about Salt Lake? That's a bigger body of water than Tulare Lake. But, that was not freshwater. Once you left the Mississippi, there are no other lakes in the Western United States that were as big as the Tulare Lake. Tulare Lake and San Francisco Bay, those two bodies of water, the size of those two is very comparable. Tulare Lake would have filled this part of the valley with water as far as you can see. This is a place where we kind of get closest to what this might have looked like 100 or 200 years ago. Big expanse of water out here in this part of the lake bed. Nature had drought times in early California when the Yokuts were here, before any humans were here. As our local climate changes, not the weather today, not the weather this year, but climate over the long haul. As it gets warmer, it has already changed enough in the valley that it's affecting growers year after year here now. It is not a future thing. We have been in it for decades. Every grower that I've talked to is anxious, worried, you know, where they get their water, which kind of crops they can grow. It's like having something happen to the stock market, to the, you know, to the national economy. This is the local economy. And the currency of that economy is water. Here we are on the floor of the Central Valley, a place that gets less than seven inches of rain a year, clearly classifying as a desert. Deserts get 10 or fewer inches of rain a year. We only get enough rain to grow a grassland. And that's why most of the Valley was prairie. We're at the Southwest corner of the preserve. And I know, I have a recollection of the place we walked and the things we saw and, you know, we're within probably a hundred feet of where you filmed before. This is literally the very same pool we were in before. Vernal pools here in this part of the valley fill with rainwater. This water didn't arrive from a stream. This all came from the sky. The Vernal part of their name means that they're here in the spring, like Vernal Equinox. These temporary or ephemeral pools support some very remarkable species, crustaceans, amphibians, Vernal pool flowers. There's just a remarkable variety of things here that tell a lot of great stories. And this is in the sunflower family. It doesn't have any yellow, you know, ray petals like sunflowers do, but this is a special vernal pool member of that family. There's also a very, very pretty flower here that only grows in vernal pools, the calico flower, yellow, white, and purple. For whatever reason, those are the three most common colors among the flowers of Vernal pools, yellow, white, and purple. The pools will only be here maybe another couple of weeks, and then they disappear, not because they drain down into the ground. They disappear because warmer months come, and the water evaporates and the pools just go away. By having in a sense a refuge, there may be a time from places like this, we will have the seeds and the soil and the other resources to sort of bring back some of that land that has been cleared for irrigated agriculture. This is one of the places where maybe some of that life can come from. To me it's amazing anything is alive out here. We are truly in a desert climate. It's July in the Valley, and as hot as it can be. There are living things here out and about during the day, not many, I haven't seen a bird or a lizard or a mouse or a squirrel. I don't even see the ants right now because it's so hot that even they have stayed underground. These plants are doing everything they can to hold on to every drop of moisture. Their color helps them to lose very little water to the sun. They've got textures on their leaves that cut down on the wind that's stealing all their water. There's a crust on the soil here, and there's a term that ecologists use. They call this a cryptogamic crust. And this is something where, when you see it, you know, you're looking at a relatively undisturbed desert site, formed over very long periods of time, a site where the hooves of a cow or a sheep have not cut into the crust and loosened that to expose the soil to wind erosion. The crust helps to cut down on dust. It holds the soil. There actually are organisms living in here called blue-green bacteria that make the soil fertile. So, you know, this is a feature where it's so easy to miss it, it's a 32nd of an inch thick. That little crust, that little layer on the soil here is one of the most remarkable things about a nice patch of desert ground here in the Valley. Skull, very bleached on one side and not quite so on the other, but jack rabbit had met his end out on that little patch of open ground there. Well, the soil here is actually excellent soil. When the first settlers came to California, it's right about at the Gold Rush, maybe 1849. They knew the soil that I'm standing on is fertile. All you need to do to farm this is level it and irrigate it with a lot of water for a few years to drive salts down, you could become a wealthy grower by planting almond or pistachio trees on this ground. The term often used is, it will make the desert bloom. We can take a dry landscape and grow almost anything there and water to be brought here is being pumped from underground or being delivered through a very long system of canals and channels around here. Water being used to irrigate a lake bed that once was a functioning wild lake. So as we came to the Valley, you know, in the 1850s, to irrigate meant that you were taking water from a stream and putting it on land near that channel. Now that lasted a certain amount of time. And then we got to a point where we had done all the irrigated agriculture we could with the water from our rivers. Agriculture and humans in general, we want bigger, bigger, bigger, more, and more and more. We imported water from a different river that never came here before. And now we had extra imported water. To send water from the San Joaquin river, south through a large canal to irrigate land that had never had water on it before, water for growing our agriculture. And that's called the Friant-Kern Canal. When we planted all the land that that water could sustain, we did that again. That was the State Water Project. We imported water from farther away, from a whole different part of the state. Water in dozens of canals and channels around here. We planted more acreage. We grew more crops. We built the California Aqueduct, water from farther away from a whole different part of the state. The growing agricultural economy is always looking for new ground to grow crops on, if we can get water there. And then starting mostly in the '20s, '30s and '40s, as we began to be able to construct wells that could run with an engine, wells that could be drilled into the ground and go deeper and deeper. We've been taking more and more water out of the ground. Pay attention to your skin and your temperature as you come this way. It's humid. I mean, come look at the mud in the cornfield. This is flood irrigated. You can't do drip on corn. That's a pump and that's a standpipe. Can you feel it now? It's like being in South Carolina. Humid. Most of the water that is used for crops in this part of the state is water that we're taking from deep underground. Old water below our feet. There is some groundwater that is literally hundreds and thousands of years old. This is not the tallest corn in the Valley. I mean, you can see corn stands that can be up to 10, 12, 15 feet tall. This one looks about 10 feet. It's probably within a month of being harvested. And whether they're harvesting it for corn, you know, to sell in a vegetable stand as corn on the cob, more than likely this is going to be chopped for sillage, for cattle feed. We are in Laton, a little town in Fresno County on the Kings River. And this is a channel of the river that today is dry as it is most of the time, most years and most months of the year, near the mouth of the King's river, where the Kings River flowed into the Tulare lake bed. This was at one time, a massive forest of Valley Oak trees. There were nesting great blue herons and great egrets. We manage the river in such a way that the water is seldom here today. And we're just going to find a spot in the river channel where we can take a look at some of the soil layers and think about groundwater. I'm just going to move something up out of the flood plain here. When I think about my sort of learning arc about nature, it started with things like hawks. I was a young teenage boy. I liked to identify things. I enjoyed looking through binoculars at birds and airplanes. As I learned about the birds and the plants and the soil and the system that sustained them all, that even got to a point where now I wanted to know, well, where did the sand come from? How come this soil here is different than that. It was just sort of an ever expanding, you know, series of questions about what these things are. I wanted to know their names. And that's how my interest got started. We too seldom think about how much water is under our feet, not rain that falls on our Valley, not water that fell possibly 10, 11, 12, 13,000 feet above sea level as frozen snowflakes in the winter time, not surface water that flows across the surface of the land. If you live in this part of the Valley, every time you turn on your shower or your kitchen faucet, most of that water is coming from the underground. The difficulty with groundwater is that it is water in a sense, moving invisibly between tiny particles of soil under our feet, not through a big gigantic lake underground, like a giant fishbowl of nothing but water. We have wells below us. We did not take that water out of a lake. We did not take it out of a river. We're pumping it from the underground. And we have done that in our Valley to a point where we are taking groundwater out from below our feet faster than nature can put it back into the underground. If we continue to have years with lower than normal rainfall, with less Sierra snowpack, most of the water that is used for crops in this part of the State, we are having to pump from deep underground. Some of the wells are over 2,000 feet deep. They can store the water on the surface of the ground in that landscape and then deliver that out into various canals and ditches for farming in neighboring land. When you take that water out and you keep that out for such a long time, eventually gravity will cause those grains to sink and collapse on top of one another, and the ground begins to settle. And that's called subsidence. And it is sinking in some areas around here to the tune of a foot a year. And as the ground subsides, it sinks down into ways where you will no longer ever again be able to put water into those spaces. You can not lift the ground back up again. This is not being pumped from the underground. This is water that is called surface water, that has come from the Sierra. In early times, it was the Kings, the Kaweah, the Tule and Kern rivers that brought Sierra snowmelt here. Well, this is melted snow water, water that has flowed here from the high country from the High Sierra and the Sierra Foothills. Water that would have flowed into Tulare Lake and is being sent out to use for irrigation in the Tulare lake bed. This low, flat land here is lake bed land. These are lake bed clay soils, all washed in here from the Sierra. There are no weeds here. There are no tules growing in the ditches. This is cultivated ground for grain and tomatoes and safflower, sometimes cotton, sometimes seed alfalfa. Well, here's a bit of cotton stuck to the clay. Some lint there that will never be a t-shirt or a nice sheet. By climbing up onto this earthen mound where I am here, I'm at a pretty high vantage point. I'm looking due west up what I call the Kings River, but the local maps call this Tule River. It really is neither one. We're in a lake bed. And these are places where channels were extended in the days of massive earthmoving work in this area, Huge dredges traveled along the waterways in the Tulare lake bed. Those dredges use giant clam shell scoops to lift earth and pile it up and make these huge levees. So all of the soil on these massive levees once was the soil at the bottom of the Tulare lake bed. The lake bed now is a network of 90-degree angle, north, south, east, west roads and canals that are designed to irrigate this part of the Tulare lake bed. What we still need to work on is coming up with solutions for what's going on with the water below our feet. We cannot continue to take water from the underground faster than it's put back again. We were sort of borrowing from nature for a very long time, and it's like, the debt collector is here. And he faster we take it out, the faster we are speeding up the day of reckoning. What I'm looking at here are lift pumps, way down in the bottom of the Tulare lake bed. And this is water that can move north, can move south. This is one of those places where for all my years in the Tulare lake bed, this was always a quiet spot. This was water that could simply move by gravity from one end of the canal to another. Now this portion of the lake bed has sunk so far, we've had so much subsidence that you can see that they are having to lift water here. If I had to guess, looks like they're lifting it 10 to 15 feet so that it will continue to move to the south end of the lake bed. And when you have to pump that far, it takes a lot more diesel fuel, takes a lot more electricity. Those put carbon fuel emissions into the air, CO2. We can see how far down the water is. That water is being lifted inside these massive steel pipes, being lifted by the pump up above. I can feel the coolness of the metal since the water is running through. We can see the turbulence swirling and swirling around, continuing to then send that water to the south, down toward the south end of the Tulare lake bed. Subsidence is a one-time thing. We can't inject water back in and raise the surface of the earth again. Once the earth goes down, it's down. As the surface sinks, it's affecting roads and pipes and waterways, and lots of things like this in the Valley. You know, we are looking at a time of change. If you farm in the Tulare basin, where so much of our agriculture is supported by pumped groundwater, there are changes coming. Distances are massive. The sizes of the fields are huge. The amount of water that it would have taken to cover the lake when it was 440 square miles is far more water than we see here right now. We haven't had a lot of rain. We haven't had a lot of snowfall in the distant Sierra. Our groundwater levels have dropped. The lake is gone. The island is gone. The pelicans are gone. The fishes are gone. You know, this is an entirely changed part of our planet surface here. What we're seeing now are plants from, not even from California. This is Russian thistle from the dry lands in the Eastern Asian part of the former Soviet Union. The grass is red brome from Europe. Water everywhere in the world is limited. And there's not always going to be a there, another place to go get that water. Even though it almost looks like this got burned in a fire, this is not fire damage we're seeing. This is a result of drought, groundwater subsidence, and climate change. Most of these trees are just completely dead. You know, this is something that can be traced to human activity. We'd like to think that things will stay as we're familiar, as we're accustomed to. And I think we all tend to hope that drastic change doesn't come about. When a person looks at a fallen tree, we don't often think about where did this wood come from, and now that it is dead and on the ground, where does this wood go? At the college where I teach, many of my students thought that this material came from the ground, that the tree has pulled material from the earth to make the wood, but almost everything that's in my hands right now, almost all the carbon in this hard, solid wood was once carbon in the atmosphere. And we love trees because of the way they can store that carbon in their solid wood for decades, for centuries. Now, these trees that have fallen, you know, you can see they're beginning to break down. And there are beetle trails through them. And there are now termites and ants and fungi will grow through here once the moisture allows them to penetrate the wood of this dead tree. All of this carbon will go back to the atmosphere again. And as long as that tree is alive, all that carbon in that wood is not in our atmosphere. When we burn fossil fuel, coal and oil, carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere and those gases store more of our planet's heat. That carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere is what is causing the change in our climate. We're walking up here on the west side of what's called Summit Lake, so named because at the very, very north end of the historic Tulare lake bed, Tulare Lake ended. There was a series of slow, winding slough channels that led into this very small basin here. In the early days there were large trees standing about where we are now with green, leafy vegetation hanging down into slow moving water. And in the 1800s, there were years where the lake got full enough, that it actually spilled over the north edge of Tulare Lake and the waters would then flow north, join the waters of the San Joaquin River and flow from there up to the Delta out into San Francisco Bay and eventually into the Pacific Ocean. The reason that Tulare Lake is so hard to even envision or visualize is, it is just so big. Tulare Lake was about, somewhere around 20 miles from one end to another and about 10 to 15 miles wide. So when you make the comparison here, Summit Lake, probably from one side to another isn't quite a mile across. When you make the comparison to a place like Lake Tahoe, Tulare Lake was much broader in terms of the land that it covered. Tahoe does not have the surface area of Tulare Lake. It is much deeper. Tulare Lake was wide, broad, and shallow, somewhere around 30 feet deep in the middle. In a wet year, Tulare Lake filled to full, could spread out to over a thousand square miles. Part of the new climate reality, if that becomes the pattern, if we get summer monsoons instead of winter snowpack, that's one of the reasons that there is increased interest, increased conversation about the idea of using the traditional historical lake beds in the Tulare Valley where water will naturally flow, when we have it. When we have major water events, those lakes can still receive and store a lot of water. The Tulare Lake, Buena Vista Lake, Kern Lake, Goose Lake, Summit Lake, those lake beds potentially could be the reservoirs of the future. Places where quality of life can include part of the natural world. If we do not actively plan for that, the kind of change that has seen so much of that go away could get us to a point where there's nearly none of that left. There are already are projects going on here in the Valley where government agencies and private groups are doing land protection, and land conservation of various wetlands. One of the challenges that faces us with the restoration work that's going on, those sorts of things are expensive. And we live in an area with an economy where there's tremendous unemployment. You know, we are in one of the poorest parts of the Valley, the Tulare Basin. So it is happening. It's happening in small steps. All of that sort of thing is being done by groups that have an interest in preserving the wild landscapes and the vegetation, the plants, and the animals of the Tulare Basin. In the process of sorting out how we deal with things like a reduced water supply, you talk about things called environmental justice, environmental racism. Those basically boil down to a question about, how do we make resources equitably available to everybody? And it's a difficult thing to do. And one of the things that makes that even more complicated is that so much of the water we're talking about today is water than most of us never think about. We don't see it because it's underneath our feet. Part of the process of working with nature is that you end up letting nature self-select what can and perhaps should be growing on these different spots. Very nice cottonwood it's encouraging to see cottonwood this late in August with shiny brand new green leaves. I mean, this is so new that I imagine this has been out just days now. An oak that was planted from a large planter, probably a five or 10 gallon specimen initially. And it's now quite a bit taller than I am. What I love so much about this ranch operation is one that it's not just coexistence, it's a celebration of the intricate interactions between production agriculture and encouraging of biodiversity. As a biologist, I have loved growing up in a Valley with a very rich, natural palette, a landscape, a mosaic of forest and prairie and marsh. My hope is simply that families who live here now and families who grow up and have their families here, I just want for them the opportunity to live in a place that they enjoy, a place they can be proud of, a place that they love. This is one of the really remarkable ones. It's important to Monarch butterfly. And a place where some of that love is based on an appreciation for the beauty and the richness of nature that surrounds us. The orchard that we see, these are almonds. In the old days, this would have been flood irrigated. It looks like they may still do that. I'm not seeing plastic line running through these trees. That would be drip irrigation, where each tree has an emitter to bring water just enough needed for the tree. We're in a classic observation point here to see the three main recipients of California water. This is being irrigated. The agriculture of our modern Valley is irrigated agriculture. It's not like the Great Plains where the corn and the wheat grow with rain. Agriculture in this part of California gets the majority of the water. Residential areas across the canal. We can see a neighborhood, gardens, ornamental trees, shade trees, and in between is a tiny strip of habitat, an ecosystem dependent on groundwater, which is no longer close enough to the surface of the ground to sustain this riparian forest. That's why we have dead trees. Some of them have been bulldozed here. Some have dead tops. In the future of our Valley, which is beginning now, as we begin to learn how to manage and live sustainably with the water below our feet, habitat requires water, farmland requires water, all of the residents of the Valley require water. The decisions coming out of this are ones that require a public that understands what groundwater is and where it comes from and who will use it and how they will use it. If residents use it all, we will have no more farmland. If farmlands and residential areas use all the water, there will be nothing left for the habitat. If we figure out a way to manage our groundwater more sustainably, that could mean the Valley where the agricultural productivity is working in concert with our communities and communities that include natural communities, ecosystems, whether those are ponds or marshes or forest or grasslands. All of those natural areas require a certain amount of water. So our decisions determine how much of that we are willing to lose and how much of that we will work to protect and maintain within our communities. A few years ago, when we walked through this landscape, it was all tule marsh. There were no willow trees. We were walking in something that recreated the old marshy shoreline of the Tulare Lake. I was walking in water nearly up to my waist, you know, just kind of strolling through this area with all that life around us. Seeing this place today, it makes me sad. I guess I don't really see it in the defeat sense. The way the water used to come here was not something that could be counted on any longer. Economics did not allow that to happen. We are in a time of change with lots of challenging decisions to come. Not too far out in the Valley is an area where water is stored for farm purposes. And that water is within the Tulare lake bed. Those birds are going there just as they might've done when the lake was still here. The lake disappeared in 1898 but even since then, as long as there is any water in a reservoir, spread out on a piece of farm land, the birds still will come and use it. It's still a very attractive area for wildlife. They'll be here and they'll do this for the next two or three months, and then fly across the Sierra, find Mono Lake. Maybe they'll go all the way to Salt Lake and these will nest in the salty interior desert lakes of the Great Basin. So, I mean, to me, coyotes calling, gulls going by, kites flying around courting, you know, there's still this place is still got a little lifeblood left in it and were it to be wet regularly, it would be remarkable. Still is pretty amazing. Boy, there's gold, pure gold. That water's worth more money than oil, gold, silver. It's life. Boy, no matter how they try to screw up this river, all you to do is put water back into it and it's beautiful.