Helping Farmers Cope with Historic Drought, High Cost of Pumping Groundwater

Since 1911, SCE has been offering pump-efficiency testing as a free service to help agribusiness customers use less energy and save money.

On a hot, dry and blustery day in Ventura County, Santa Ana winds pushed billowing clouds of dust across the Santa Clara River Valley. Using his clipboard to shield his face from the wind and dust and blazing sun, Steve Villegas hunched over testing equipment hooked up to an antique water pump in an avocado orchard on a hillside overlooking U.S. Highway 126, just outside Santa Paula.

Villegas, a technical specialist with Southern California Edison’s Hydraulic & Industrial Services, was checking the efficiency of an SCE agribusiness customer’s water pumping system. “That says 473.9 gallons per minute,” he shouted over the roar of the pump’s electric motor, referring to the discharge flow rate as displayed by his testing equipment. “That’s very good.”

Villegas is on the front lines of SCE’s efforts to mitigate the impact on customers of the extreme drought in the West that is now in its third year. California’s farmers and ranchers are facing increasing challenges in watering their crops and livestock. State water authorities are limiting surface water allotments from the state’s network of rivers, reservoirs and aqueducts, so agribusinesses are relying even more on groundwater pumped up from deep aquifers beneath their lands.

Pulling groundwater up with powerful electric pumps can be expensive — several thousand dollars a month just for the pumps’ electric bill at a large operation. That’s where SCE pump testers like Villegas come in. Since 1911, SCE has been offering pump-efficiency testing as a free service to help agribusiness customers use less energy and save money.

SCE’s pump testing services determine the overall “wire-to-water” efficiency of a pumping plant by analyzing the water level in a well during pumping, discharge flow rates and power input to the pump motor. These measurements of pump performance allow customers to track pumping-plant efficiency and determine when maintenance or overhaul will be cost-effective.

The current drought has focused renewed attention on the crucial nexus of water and electricity in California. For more than a century, water and electricity in California have been closely linked. Water is used to make electricity via hydroelectric systems of dams and powerhouses. Electricity — about 20 percent of the state’s total power output — is used to pump, transport and purify water.

In a normal year, pumped groundwater can supply as much as 40 percent of California’s water, and up to 60 percent in a drought year. But the past three years of drought have left surface water supplies so low that pumped groundwater could add up to 65 percent or more of the state’s water this year. The University of California-Davis estimated that farmers could pump as much as 5 million acre-feet of groundwater this year, at a cost of $450 million. (An acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons.)

In SCE’s service territory, Tulare County is the epicenter of the drought crisis. Tulare is the nation’s top-producing agricultural county, having recently surpassed Fresno County. Demand for pump testing has surged there, and SCE has been working to increase resources to provide the tests.

“The majority of agriculture for SCE is up here in the Central Valley, and the drought has certainly had an impact this year,” said Russell Johnson, a manager in SCE’s Tulare Regional Office. “We have been bringing up test technicians from other areas such as Rialto and Ventura to assist with the increased demand for pump tests in Tulare. Testers are working long days and weekends.”

In addition to pump testing, SCE offers several other cost-saving programs for agribusiness customers. Among them are “demand response” programs that offer financial incentives for temporarily reducing electricity use upon request during periods of high-energy demand.

SCE also offers energy-efficiency cash incentives applicable to pumps and irrigation system operations. For example, an overhaul of a pumping system of 25 horsepower or less receives a $75-per-horsepower rebate.

There are also special money-saving rate options for farmers, including “super-off-peak” rates where customers who run their pumps at night, between midnight-6 a.m. can pay as little as 5 cents per kilowatt-hour instead of the typical 14.75 cents per kilowatt-hour on-peak rate. 

Back in Santa Paula, Villegas started packing up his equipment and loading the truck after about two hours of running various tests in the avocado orchard. This farmer’s pumping system is working very well — at 71 percent efficiency according to Villegas’ calculations. That’s up from about 58 percent the last time Villegas was here, before the farmer upgraded key components in his pumps, as recommended by SCE.

“I’ve got four more to do today,” Villegas said as he climbed into the truck. The morning sun was climbing higher in the sky on a day that was to top out at 101 degrees in the valley. “It’s going to be a long one.”