From the archives: Geologist sees 2,500 years of water

The following story was written by Ernie George, and published in the News Review on Oct. 30, 1981. Thirty years after this interview with the late geologist Dr. Carl Austin, elected officials and stewards of our local water resources continue to speculate on the storage, capacity and flow of our water table. — Ed.

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In last week’s report, Dr. Carl Austin, farmer and geologist, stated his belief that, rather than the 10,000-12,000 acre-feet of water most people think comes into the basin, there is closer to 36,609 acre-feet, as illustrated by USGS figures.

Continuing his exclusive interview with the News Review, he says the question is where the water goes — not where it comes from. “Now, I’m not saying [the local mountains] put out all the water, but it raises some very strong questions in my mind with these figures we’re playing with,” said Austin.

“Now we know that the USGS assumption of only 45 acre-feet of water out of Rose Valley [north of Little Lake] has to be ridiculous. The Navy had a need to know more about Rose Valley water for its geothermal program. The Navy asked USGS to find out how the water might get out of Rose Valley and what kind of water is in Little Lake. The water in Little Lake is not regular Rose Valley groundwater. It is a mixture of Rose Valley groundwater, some Sierra runoff and a significant geothermal component.

“Little Lake is partly fed by hot springs. That is not new knowledge. It was first published in the open literature in 1876. That’s why parts of Little Lake don’t freeze in winter time and you see green around all year,” he said.

“The USGS has identified and published a report on a buried river channel that formerly, and probably still, drains Rose Valley but not Little Lake into the Indian Wells Valley, and it does not go through Little Lake.”

Austin noted that a U.S. Geologic Survey paper of 1978 said, “The older buried channel east of Little Lake may now provide a major conduit for groundwater to help recharge the heavily pumped subsurface waters of China Lake basin.

“They have mapped it, they have traced it geophysically. It doesn’t prove where the water goes, but it gives us a suggestion that ought to be followed up. Because it’s a channel. You can see it from the air. It’s covered with basalt flow, with gravel underneath it. I might add that not too far back a placer-mining outfit did quite a bit of drilling for a portion of that channel, which is off the base.

“They were thinking they might find some mineral there. So that channel is real. USGS is confident it’s there. You can go up in an airplane and see it. That’s probably where that water gets out, but it gets out subsurface, they can’t see it, so they say it’s not there,” the geologist stated.

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Water inflow

“Then we come to the question of water that comes from outside the basin. The USGS people who are experts in the question of flows of water in bedrock took a hard look at that question in terms again as part of the geothermal program. That program has given us some real knowledge of groundwater in parts of this area. And their feeling is that groundwater comes from outside the basin,” said Austin.

“We think that water tends to run downhill. If you draw a cross-section of the Sierra Nevada, you have a gently flowing slope between 1 and 2 degrees on the west edge, and a deep scarp in front facing this valley. Now that means that the subsurface draining divide is not going to be underneath the peaks. It’s going to be displaced to the west, because water still runs downhill. That means we might get some significant amounts of water from heavy rainfall-snowfall a short distance west of the crest,” he said.

“The Navy has never sponsored a study of water sources from the Indian Wells Valley, but the Navy did sponsor a USGS study by their top isotope-geologist and geochemist for Rose Valley. They found that water in the deep Rose Valley system comes from rain and snow as far west as the South Fork of the Kern River. They published that in 1980. This was a significant piece of data based on isotope studies,” the geologist said.

“If it happens in Rose Valley, by golly it might just happen in Nine Mile, Dead Foot, Five Mile or other canyons coming in on the south,” Austin said.

He read from a USGS report, “Recharge for a deep. chloride-rich hot water comes predominantly from rain and snow that falls on the Sierra Nevada about 25 to 45 kilometers west of Coso (South Fork, Kern River). This recharge water probably descends along east-dropping faults in the Sierra Nevada granites and migrates deep underground toward the Coso geothermal area.”

“So it says,” Austin continued, “we might get water, we probably get water from the west of the crest, which puts it in that high snowfall-rainfall area. But it doesn’t flow on the surface, it flows to the fractured underground. If it happens in Rose Valley, then you suspect it’s going to happen here.

“Then, last but not least, L.A. Department of Water and Power has for years stated they see about 10,000 acre-feet per year underflow of fresh water south along the Sierra Front out of Owens Valley into Rose Valley, and then into the Indian Wells Valley on the south.

“A lot of folks have said that can’t happen because Rose Valley is a very shallow valley and hence not possible for deep recharge to occur. I would like to point out that this past year a 4,000-foot drill-hole in the north end was sunk, and at 4,000 they were still in sediments and good-quality groundwater. Down by the cinder cone, in that portion of the valley, a 200-foot test well was put in by private interests and at the bottom they were in cold flowing water, a current past the well,” he said.

“Where does the water go? It doesn’t magically disappear. It goes to the next lowest place, I suspect. And the next lowest place is Indian Wells Valley. Where does all the water go? That’s the question we have ignored. We’ve gotten all wrapped up in trying to guess about how much runs in by guessing how much runs out of the surface. If water runs in underground, it might run out underground.

“The least-studied item today is where does the water go? Now this valley is essentially full. You’ve got some little problems here and there. You got a little drawdown and a pumping depression in the mid-valley areas. The valley is over-full and there is water running out of it, even though we’ve got some little holes here and there,” he said.

Some water is pumped out, he said. “Some water runs out on the surface. Some evaporates on the playa. Some is used for crops and sewage. I would comment that about 33 percent of that pumped out by the hay growers goes right back into the underlying water table. If you’re putting six and seven feet of water on that soil, it goes right back. I cannot prove it, it’s just my theory of how much water runs out of faults and fractures into Searles Valley and into the Cantil area.

“If water runs in through faults and fractures, I would be willing to bet some runs out.”

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To the brim

Austin conceives of the valley as a wash basin that is full.

“There’s evaporation off the top,” he said. “There’s some unknown amount running in from various recharge sources. There’s overflow and a bunch leaking out to Trona. There’s a bunch leaking out to other areas like Cantil.

“I believe that, by proper production practices, we might possibly tap a lot of that water that goes to Cantil because it takes a long time to get that water, and the folks in Cantil would never know it. I think we can capture more out of the water production of the Sierra bedrock if we want to increase the production into the valley for quite a few decades,” he said.

“The USGS folks will state that the Sierra, being granitic, is non-groundwater bearing. They ignore the fact that there’s an awful lot of it alongside our valley, above the valley floor and inside the drainage divide, just that small portion of it. And if you assume it had only two percent fracture pore face, which is a very conservative estimate, there’s three cubic miles of water in that rock,” the scientist-farmer said.

“We have done some drilling of granitics alongside Rose Valley and we came out with close to 10 percent pore face. And that was a 4,000-plus-foot hole, a deep one. If Sierra granitics have 10-percent pore space, you’re talking 51 million acre feet of water in the fractures alone in the Sierra Nevada. If it were only 2 percent, you’re still talking 10 million feet — 10 times what’s in the upper portion of this valley floor natural.

“You’re talking big numbers,” the geologist said. “And it’s all water that will ultimately run into this valley. I can’t resist pointing out that that’s the buffer that protects us in the dry years and the wet years. Because it moves slowly and steadily through the years in the underground into the valley. I would comment that, at our recent estimated recharge of that valley, it would take us 2,500 years to deplete that storage above the valley floor. And I don’t really care whether it rains next year or not. The point is there’s a lot of water stored out there besides us — 15 cubic miles, possibly.”

Story First Published: 2019-05-03