Well water levels drop dramatically on UC Davis campus

Water levels in wells on the UC Davis campus have declined dramatically in recent months because of the ongoing drought in California, prompting campus officials to spend $50,000 to deepen one pump and install new monitoring devices.

The university campus is entirely dependent on well water. Months ago, officials asked students and employees to cut water use 20 percent, but that target has not been achieved campuswide.

Between April and June, the water table in a well known as Domestic Well No. 7A – which normally provides 60 percent of the drinking water supply on campus – dropped 82 feet. At first, officials reduced the pumping rate to stabilize the water elevation, and the well was briefly taken out of service. Then they lowered the pump in the well about 100 feet, which required major modifications. The work was completed about three weeks ago, said David Phillips, UC Davis director of utilities.

“It looks like most of the water levels we’re seeing are lower than any we’ve recorded,” Phillips said. “It looks to be that, regionally, the groundwater around the campus is dropping everywhere.”

The city of Davis is also entirely dependent on wells to serve the surrounding community. City officials did not respond to several requests for information about the status of their wells.

Both the university and the city plan to shift away from full reliance on groundwater. In partnership with the city of Woodland, they are in the midst of building a $44 million project to tap Sacramento River water purchased from Conaway Ranch. The project is expected to be complete in 2016.

Over the past month, Well No. 7A at UC Davis has dropped an additional 14 feet, Phillips said. To slow the decline, the pumping rate, previously 850 gallons per minute, has been reduced to 600.

The well is one of five that provide potable water to the campus. They range from 800 to 1,600 feet deep, said Phillips. The others have seen water table drops of 35 feet on average, he said, but have not had similar problems because their pumps were mounted deeper. But one of them, Well 4A, has dropped 51 feet since April and officials plan to lower this pump by 100 feet later this month.

The campus is installing monitoring devices on all its wells to track water levels more frequently. These also will be installed on five wells that are used for nonpotable water needs, such as landscape irrigation and heating-and-cooling operations in campus buildings. Altogether, the well work triggered by the drought will cost about $50,000, Phillips said.

Despite the declines, the wells still have ample water, he said.

“It doesn’t seem like the supply at this point is really in jeopardy,” Phillips said. “It’s mainly just these operational headaches associated with pumping it.”

The university has reduced landscape irrigation and “significantly exceeded” the 20 percent goal in that department, Phillips said. But additional work is needed to conserve water in the evaporative cooling towers that are part of the large-scale systems that provide climate control in campus buildings. The campus devised a way to recycle water through the cooling towers more times. This requires replacing some equipment, so it will take longer to see the water conservation savings, he said.