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Drought Drives Demand For Groundwater, As Well-Wishers Pile Up

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The severe drought continues to strain farmers and cities in the Southwest. But for well drillers, business couldn't be better. They're slammed as demand for groundwater grows. Will Stone of member station KJZZ in Phoenix has this report.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Need a well? If you live in Arizona, get in line.

RALPH ANDERSON: It's going to be at least nine months just to get on the schedule.

STONE: That's Ralph Anderson of Beeman Drilling.

ANDERSON: We're the largest production well driller in the state.

STONE: He's standing next to a rig 60 feet high that once occupied an oil field. Now it sits in a neighborhood outside Phoenix in search of the desert's most valuable research - water.

ANDERSON: This is a rig that's capable of drilling down to 2,000 feet.

STONE: This afternoon, they're cleaning out a mostly finished well. Dirty water spills through a metal grate, known as a shale shaker, into a giant tank.

ANDERSON: Makes me happy when you look at, just, water coming out that you know it's going to be pure blue water here in a few minutes (laughter).

STONE: That's not the only reason Anderson is feeling good. Business is booming. Some companies are sending him deposits of close to a million dollars just to save their spot in line for a well. Anderson says demand has rebounded to what it was before the recession hit.

ANDERSON: It's about been about a four or five-year recovery, but now because of the drought in California, that's stripped away a lot of the drill rigs.

STONE: Leaving people like Anderson in Arizona holding the bag. Many cities and water companies are trying to beef-up their well infrastructure, but the industry has flocked to California's Central Valley. Finding enough trained drillers here has been a real challenge for Anderson.

ANDERSON: They're roughnecks and they're in danger all the time. There's 30-foot pieces of steel that weigh 8,000 pounds that are being lifted 40-foot above their head.

STONE: One of those roughnecks is Luis Balderama. He's cooling down in the doghouse - the trailer with all the equipment and drilling plans. He says people will ask him about getting into the business.

LUIS BALDERAMA: Not just anyone wants to jump in it 'cause they know it's hard work.

STONE: But vital. These drillers hold the keys to Arizona's drought insurance policy. Unlike California, where groundwater was unregulated until recently, pumping here has been restricted in the most populated areas for decades. And for good reason - if the Lake Mead reservoir near Las Vegas sinks too low, Arizona is the state that loses the most water.

RITA MAGUIRE: The fact that we knew we were at a risk of shortage put us on notice.

STONE: Rita Maguire is the former head of the state water department. While this junior water rights status can be a sore subject here, Maguire says there's a silver lining. Arizona has stashed huge amounts of water underground for times of drought.

MAGUIRE: I call it our IRA account. We put money away for not the rainy day, but in our case, the very dry days, as we're seeing now.

STONE: And that's where the well drillers come in. They make those withdrawals, not just for the cities, but for the farmers. Their situation is especially urgent.

Brian Betcher manages an irrigation district south of Phoenix. His growers rely on water piped-in from the Colorado River. And much of that could get cut back in 2017, meaning Betcher has to get his wells in order.

BRIAN BETCHER: You can't always get the people you need when you need them. There's only a few people that are expert enough to do repairs to old wells, so you have to grab them when they're available.

STONE: Arizona has about 9 million acre-feet of water banked away underground. That's how much the Phoenix area uses in close to a decade, and all that water will keep Ralph Anderson's drill company busy for years to come.

ANDERSON: We're looking at water being our lifeblood, so it's something that we can never get enough of.

STONE: Although Anderson is the one putting the straw into this hard desert ground, he sees himself as a protector of this prized and finite resource. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.