Satellites reveal the secrets of water-guzzling farms in California


In a new push to stop further depletion of California’s shrinking aquifers, state regulators are turning to technology once used to count Soviet missile silos during the Cold War: satellites.

Historically, California’s farmers could pump as much as they wanted from their wells. But as a consequence of that unrestricted use, the underground water table has sunk by hundreds of feet in some areas, and the state is now trying to stabilize those aquifers.

Regulators need to calculate just how much water each farmer is using across California’s vast agricultural lands, and scientists and private companies are now offering a technique that uses images from orbiting satellites. “The days of agricultural anonymity are over,” says Joel Kimmelshue, co-founder of the company Land IQ, which is helping to hone the technique.

Water surveillance got a big boost when California passed a law in 2014 that aims to protect the state’s aquifers. It places limits on the amount of water that farmers are allowed to pump.

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