California is Literally Sinking

June 13th 2015

We've told you about the problems associated with California's depleting groundwater before. But one of those problems––that diminished aquifers are contributing to sinking land, creating what's called subsidence––is likely worse than you realize.

That's according to new details outlined in a report by the investigative outlet Reveal that examines our nation's fastest-sinking state. According to the report, last summer saw the worst sinking that California has experienced in at least 50 years, but that's not the worst of it. Per the report: "This summer, all-time records are expected across the state as thousands of miles of land in the Central Valley and elsewhere sink."

It gets scarier yet. Bafflingly, the report found that no state agency is effectively tracking sinking land, and only small amounts of taxpayer money have so far been devoted to studying it. Meanwhile, the state allows agricultural businesses to withhold information about crucial parts of their operations, which are likely directly tied to diminishing aquifers.


Why is California sinking?

With the state's ravaging, years-long drought in full effect, Californians have increasingly turned to groundwater to meet their needs in the face of historic water cuts. But as an April Op-Ed in the L.A. Times pointed out, the state has done little to implement a management plan to sustain crucial groundwater reserves. Farmers, for instance, have increasingly dipped into groundwater as they try to slake their thirsty crops. This sucking out of underground water has an effect on the land like slowly leaking air from a massive mattress, as the report explains. That means "tens of thousands of square miles are deflating ... inch by inch."

With above ground reservoir levels at historic lows, Californians now source a majority of their water––60 percent, according to April 2014 Water Department numbers––from underground aquifers. But it's a practice that's gone largely unmonitored and is leading to multiple disaster scenarios, as well as millions of dollars worth of damages to local infrastructure. The U.S. Geological Survey has already traced California's sinking to bridge destruction, cracked irrigation canals, and warped highways, the report notes. There are two nearly submerged bridges in Fresno County as well as a sinking elementary school.

Already, private companies face millions in repair costs, illustrated by a $60 million sinking dam repair and crumbling private and public water wells, costing over $500,000 a pop to replace.

How did we get to this point?

Subsidence can be traced to the transformation of California's arid desert land into one of the nation's most vibrant hubs for farming. How did that happen? Farmers in the 1920s began to pump groundwater to feed crops, but along with their successes came the first inklings of trouble. But by the time a hydrologist was hired to examine farmers' sinking land, the effect was well on its way: by 1977, in one farming community, the land sunk about 30 feet in just under 50 years.

Repair costs were mammoth, according to the report, which cites a 2014 California Water Foundation estimate that pegged just a portion of repairs to cost around $1.3 billion. But by all estimates, things are going to get worse.

Subsidence leveled off in the 1970s after the state completed its snaking canal system, which brought in water from other areas to farmers in the dry Central Valley. But since then, attention to the problem has waned, and now it appears to be coming back in force. One town cited in the report, experts said, could be sinking by a record 2 feet or more per year. But with limited measuring tools––researchers generally rely on a few hundred aging ground-elevation monitors (satellites can't keep pace with some sinking areas)––tracking the extent of subsidence in the state proves restrictive and difficult.

But already, according to a California Department of Water Resources report, tens of thousands of miles are sinking. That includes places in Napa and Sonoma counties, areas around Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, and agricultural zones around Los Angeles.

What's being done to halt the advance of sinking land?

Experts cited in the Reveal report say that state and city officials, as well as private company representatives, have demonstrated a frustrating ignorance of subsidence, even though it has required costly repairs during previous droughts. Cracked bridges and highways are often attributed to some other malady or simply categorized as a routine repair. The same goes for railroads, the report notes.

Facing potentially billions in repairs related to sinking, the state seems not to grasp the severity of the problem either. Last year, the first state law attempting to regulate groundwater use was passed, though farmers have until 2040 at the earliest to meet goals. Even then, information on who is pumping that water will be private. All of that becomes more worrisome considering the effects already taking place and the longevity of the problem the state faces from current groundwater depletion levels.

Even if the state were to abruptly halt the tens of thousands of groundwater pumps draining aquifers night and day, already established overuse will likely lead to sinking effects for years, possibly decades to come.

Head over to Reveal News to read the full report.

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