Aerial Groundwater Survey to Start in Santa Ynez Valley

Low-Flying Helicopter Will Tow Below-Ground Sensor to Map Aquifers

A low-flying helicopter towing a large hoop will travel through Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys over the next couple weeks to map out the structure of the subsurface basin and groundwater system. | Credit: Courtesy

Santa Barbara County is planning to look as far as 1,400 feet below the surface of the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys starting on Sunday. 

The viewing comes through a survey involving a helicopter towing a hexagonal frame about 100-200 feet above the ground and pinging through the geologic formations below using a weak electromagnetic field. The information collected through the pings is hoped to show the shape of groundwater basins, the size of the aquifer, any barriers to flow, the direction of water flow, bedrock outcrops, and more otherwise invisible features like faults and folds.

“It’s really cool technology from the mining industry,” said Matt Young with the county’s Water Resources program, who acknowledged residents might worry about seeing a helicopter flying so low. “Homes, structures, vineyards, roads, power lines — those would all upset the signal for the instruments,” he said, so the helicopter was avoiding them for the survey’s sake as well as the nuisance to residents. Young added that the electromagnetic field emitted was safe — equivalent to standing a foot from a toaster.

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Since California began its quest in 2014 to determine that its groundwater basins are sustainable, a whole host of information has come out about the technical requirements of what sustainability means, Young said. The Aerial Electromagnetic Method survey is one step in determining Santa Barbara County’s drinking water in areas where well data is sparse, specifically north of State Route 154.

The helicopter survey begins in the eastern portion of its zone — the Santa Ynez Valley. The western and central areas are next, including the Lompoc Valley, through the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District. Young said the flights should take a week or two to finish, depending on the weather and also activity at Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

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