History of water use in the Indian Wells Valley
By GLENN HARRIS Bureau of Land Management (retired)
This is the 13th in a series of articles by the Indian Wells Valley Cooperative Groundwater Management Group intended to inform readers about our local water resources. This article will focus on population growth and the corresponding water use within the valley since the start of World War II.
WW II brought major changes and ushered in a new era for occupation and water use within the Indian Wells Valley. The U.S. Navy was attracted to the valley in 1943 as a potential location for an ordnance test station due to the sparse population, consisting mainly of dispersed agriculture, and the already existing key utilities, including an airport with paved runways, road and railroad access, power lines, telephone service, and previously developed groundwater sources.
The Navy bought and moved out all existing residences that were within the new Naval Ordnance Test Station and began a massive construction program within the first year that built hundreds of buildings, both industrial and residential, many miles of roads, and much other necessary infrastructure. In his book “Indian Wells Valley — How it Grew,” Frederick H. Weals cites the large number of construction workers and their relatively transient nature in the valley during this period, with over 24,000 different workers hired in one eight-month period. As the Navy development continued, it was necessary to drill more groundwater wells to supply the valley’s increasing water needs.
Most of the valley’s new permanent residents lived at NOTS during the 1940s and 1950s. All of this growth in the valley led to the incorporation of the city of Ridgecrest in 1963, and starting in the 1970s the Navy began moving many personnel off of the base, which led to a large jump in Ridgecrest’s municipal water use. Major valley water users during this period included the Antelope Valley Water District, which is now the Inyokern Community Services District; the Louisiana Pacific Lumber Company, whose mill has since closed; and the Wilber Stark Water Company and Ridgecrest Heights Water Company, which were both eventually bought out by the Indian Wells Valley Water District.
A report commissioned by the East Kern Resource Conservation District estimated that there were 785 actively producing wells in the Indian Wells Valley in 1989.
Water use in the valley has been well documented for the past 50 years, and records show a shift in the distribution of use over time. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has published data that estimates valley water usage in 1965 at approximately 11,000 acre feet per year, and the Groundwater Management Group has recorded water production data for the valley dating back to 1975. This data shows 1975 usage at 15,900 acre feet per year, of which 49 percent was industrial (Navy and Searles Valley Minerals), 29 percent domestic and 22 percent agricultural use. Water production in the valley peaked in 2008 at 29,500 acre feet and then reduced to approximately 27,700 acre feet in 2011 due in large part to conservation efforts by the Navy and IWVWD. In contrast to the 1975 data, water use in 2011 consisted of 15 percent industrial, 39 percent domestic and 46 percent agricultural use.
The amount of agricultural use in the valley has increased in recent years. An analysis of 2010 aerial photography shows approximately 1,100 acres under irrigation at that time, of which approximately 850 acres were growing alfalfa. A recent analysis using a combination of 2012 aerial photography and ground-truthing in August 2013, shows approximately 2,600 additional acres that have either been cleared or are already in production for growing pistachios and alfalfa. Depending upon the irrigation techniques employed this could increase the overall water use in the valley between 23 percent and 54 percent from 2010 levels.
The Indian Wells Valley Cooperative Groundwater Management Group continues to monitor groundwater use, levels, and quality in the valley, and will be able to gain a better understanding of the water resources in the valley and to make recommendations on future use and longevity of the aquifer from the data collected.
The next article in the series will discuss several potential alternative water sources and conservation methods for use in the Indian Wells Valley. All of the articles in this series will be posted to the group’s webpage, www.iwvgroundwater.org, and future articles will focus on more details about groundwater issues and activities of the IWVCGWMG and the Technical Advisory Committee.Story First Published: 2013-09-18