Skip to content Skip to navigation

To Save Crops, Farmers Took Groundwater. Then the Land Sank

Mar 24 2017

Like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too.

Troubled Water A flow of runoff designed to move serenely through a bypass structure becomes an abrasive torrent, right, after pouring down a waterfall created by land subsidence. To rejoin the San Joaquin River, this water will have be pumped back out again or a growing pool of low-level water may spill out over nearby land. Photos: Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

By Felicity Barringer

The story of land subsidence in California’s Central Valley usually begins with a focus on wells and groundwater withdrawal. So, in western Madera County, one looks to wells like the ones Case Vlot needed to keep forage growing on his 3,500 acres in Chowchilla, which he uses to feed a few thousand dairy cattle. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, 10 of Vlot’s wells reach below the clay layer deep underground that supports the gently sloping farmland from Los Banos to Madera.

That farmland has been cracking at the surface for years; heavy pumping to keep crops alive during a five-year drought has made it worse. But now that the rains have come back with a vengeance, water managers have a new reality: like the topsoil, structures built 40 years ago to contain floodwaters are cracking, too. Thanks to the damage, they can’t hold as much water.

It is not a good time for the flood infrastructure to function below capacity. Just as the drought was epic, the snowmelt of 2017, arriving in the next few months, may be epic as well. So, three things are happening:

  • Downstream, Central Valley farmers, water managers, and communities are getting ready for the water’s arrival.
  • Upstream, dam managers are trying to make room in their reservoirs to store the coming snowmelt, hoping they can make enough space to allow them to release runoff gradually into the rivers below.
  • Overhead, aircraft and satellites are providing increasingly accurate measurements of how much the land below has subsided. Water specialists and researchers are analyzing the this data to determine what is happening, where, how fast, and what must be done about it.

One of the starkest examples of subsidence in California’s Central Valley can be found in the area around Los Banos and Chowchilla, where the 50-mile Chowchilla-East Side Bypass structure was designed to absorb the runoff from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. But it is hardly unique in being damaged by subsidence, according to a recent report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A new Stanford paper determined that subsidence caused a permanent loss of groundwater storage capacity amounting to “roughly nine percent of the groundwater pumping” in the Central Valley area they studied.

Last month, the agency reported the sinking is happening faster, putting infrastructure on the surface at growing risk of damage. In a bowl north of Yolo, the ground has dropped nine inches over the past six years; a bowl around Tulare and Corcoran has subsided a like amount, or even a bit more. A new book, “High and Dry,” explains that the subsidence the San Joaquin Valley is suffering mirrors what is happening in arid farming regions around the world.

The measuring tools carried by aircraft and satellites have become very sophisticated. “We have radar images every six days to a month, repeating,” said Tom Farr, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the lead author of the NASA report, “I can see the changes in the ground as they happen.” Not all the subsidence is permanent, he added.

And it is not just flood control structures whose capacity has been reduced by subsidence. A new paper by Rosemary Knight, an Earth Sciences professor at Stanford and Ryan G. Smith, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in environmental geophysics, which was published in “Water Resource Research,” determined that subsidence caused a permanent loss of groundwater storage capacity amounting to “roughly nine percent of the groundwater pumping” in the Central Valley area they studied.

“Whatever happens below the ground, it’s done. You cannot recover.” Chris White of the Central California Irrigation District. At right, water cascades down a rift created by subsidence under a bridge over the Chowchilla Bypass. Managers estimate that damage caused by subsidence has reduced the canal’s carrying capacity by a quarter. Photos: Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

As far as Chris White is concerned, “Whatever happens below the ground, it’s done. You cannot recover.” Mr. White is the general manager of the 80-mile long Central California Irrigation District, which encompasses are quarter of a million acres and 1,900 landowners in the area around Los Banos. The district supplies more than half a million acre-feet of water a year to its largely agricultural customers. Mr. White knows very well what farmers have gone through trying to keep crops going during droughts. He also remembers the flood years, like 1997 — experience that is guiding him now.

Standing on a bridge over the Chowchilla Bypass, he gestures past the water roaring over a 15-foot waterfall created by subsidence, to a spot beyond where surging water from a February storm overtopped the banks and left a tangle of tree limbs and other debris. Aside from endangering farmland, the floods that could overtop the bypass could swamp parts of Highway 152 and a local elementary school.

Perched over the new waterfall, Mr. White explained the gouging impact of the water, which makes the hole deeper. The water carries away soil and vegetation, depositing them further down the bypass in a low place with slower flow. This further impedes water designed to flow back into the San Joaquin riverbed. Worse, subsidence means the water pools lower than the last portion of the bypass structure. To get the water back into the bypass and on to the river channel, it must be pumped uphill.

Sunken by Groundwater Pumping, the Central Valley’s Flood Infrastructure Will Be Put to the Test By Spring Snowmelt

During the past few years of drought, large parts of California’s Central Valley experienced land subsidence — a sinking of the ground level that can damage infrastructure and affect the flow of irrigation and stormwater canals. The primary culprit, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory believe, is the heavy pumping of groundwater to replace missing surface water supply. According to NASA’s aerial analyses, some areas of the Central Valley sank more than two feet between the springs of 2015 and 2016. Subsidence threatens a vast range of elevation-sensitive infrastructure (in addition to canals and levees), such as railroads, bridges, and buildings. At right, an animation of the estimated snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains over the past few months; this spring, water managers expect snowmelt to bring intense runoff into the Central Valley.

map

Sources: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (land subsidence); State of California Spatial Information Library (aqueducts and water features); U.S. Geological Survey (watershed boundaries) National Snow & Ice Data Center University of Colorado, Global Reservoir and Dams Database; Natural Earth Data    Geoff McGhee
 

Avoiding a flood of water that overtops the bypass is the job of people like Michael Wolfe, a hydrologic supervisor at the Friant Dam, which impounds San Joaquin River water several miles away. Right now, Mr. Wolfe said, dam managers from the federal Bureau of Reclamation are releasing water at an unusually high rate of 9,000 cubic feet per second, to lower the level of the reservoir and allow more space for the snowmelt. “We don’t know when it’s going to come and we’re being as ready as we possibly can be,” he said. One can get ahead of a deluge; it’s almost impossible to catch up.

When the snowmelt comes, the managers at Friant will be having frequent conference calls with their counterparts at the Army Corps of Engineers, who manage dams: the Buchanan dam on the Chowchilla River; the Hidden Dam on the Fresno River just south of it; and further south, the Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River. Also on the calls is the state’s Department of Water Resources, which manages smaller structures.

“When it gets going hot and heavy, we talk every day,” Mr. Wolfe said, “it’s been a good a start to the flood season because we’ve run flood control flows since January,” indicating that the high-volume releases to date are keeping dam managers with capacity to spare to accommodate some future floods. The managers also talk to the San Joaquin Levee District, which manages the bypass. All of them try to do the math, juggling variables of time, distance and flow, to make sure that the vulnerable sections of the bypass don’t have to absorb more than 12,000 cubic feet per second of water. Before subsidence, that section was designed to accommodate 16,500 cfs.

But the dam managers have floods of their own to avoid, and a prescribed regimen of releases when waters surge; their needs take precedence, in a pinch. In the coming weeks, it will be evident whether their choreography of the 2017 water ballet can keep the Los Banos and Madera area dry.

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Beyond the Coal Boom: Powder River Basin Residents Look to a Diversified Future

The nationwide decline of coal is testing the resilience of the Powder River Basin. Residents used to a thriving economy, a top-notch education system, and an excess of job opportunities are learning to live with less.

 

 

 

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Graphics & the West

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Emily Wilder, and Alessandro Hall

May 8, 2018

Study Finds Mega-Storms Will Become Increasingly Common for California. Extreme weather swings will occur more frequently as global warming raises sea levels and puts more water vapor in the air, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change. It suggests that the drought-to-flood weather patterns the state has experienced in recent years indicates a growing risk for more turbulent weather ahead. San Jose Mercury News

Hawaii May Ban Sunscreens Containing Chemicals That Hurt Marine Environment. After years of advocacy by local groups, Hawaiian lawmakers have passed a measure to ban the sale of sunscreens with the chemicals oxybenzone and octynoxate. The risk of these chemicals has often been overlooked, but they have been shown to wash off in the ocean and threaten local marine life and ecosystems, particularly coral reefs. Should Gov. David Ige sign the bill, Hawaii would become the first state banning such products to protect marine ecosystems. Washington Post

Oregon Health Department Says Air Near The Dalles Is Safe, Despite the Odor. For several years, residents living near the Amerities railroad tie plant in The Dalles have voiced concern over the stench apparently a result of the plant’s chemical activities. The plant uses a creosote mixture to treat the wooden ties, which emits several substances called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that, in high levels, are known to cause cancer and other health problems. While the air does not pose these risks, according to the report, it may still cause reactions in some people. KGW TV

NIMBYism and the Environment: Opponents of Housing Development for Homeless Cite Environmental Law to Shut Down Project. The Los Angeles development’s would-be neighbors, the Rosadas, have filed a lawsuit claiming that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved an environmental report prepared for the city by consultants. The land to be developed apparently sits over an abandoned oil well, causing concerns over remaining contaminants in the soil. While experts conducted extensive studies on the land before the housing plan, the Rosadas insist the dangers to the environment still exist. Los Angeles Times

An Unusual Alliance: Washington Farm Groups Joins Cattle Association and EPA in an Environmental Suit. The Washington Farm Bureau succeeded in overcoming, for the moment, a state court decision that blocked them from intervening in an environmental organization’s lawsuit. The suit, by Northwest Environmental Advocates, alleges federal and state regulators aren’t protecting waterways from agriculture and required buffers to keep out runoff are inadequate. The Bureau has been concerned that an eventual decision might hurt agricultural interests, and wanted a seat at the table. Capital Press

April 20, 2018

Las Vegas by the Sea? Desert City Thinks About Desalination. With a new report predicting the Nevada city will outgrow its water supply within 20 years, Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority said recently, "Certainly desalination might be part of Southern Nevada's water portfolio at some point in the future. He added, "it could be something that happens within the next 20 or 30 years." Water Deeply

Once Again, Water Is For Fighting Over: the Central Arizona Project Is Accused of Unfairly Manipulating its claims on the Colorado River. Four states from the Upper Basin have joined Denver's water utility to accuse the Arizona agency of seeking to avoid the kind of cutbacks that could be imposed on other river users, In the throes of an 18-year drought, with Lake Mead's levels projected to decline further, the states risk losing their decade-old spirit of cooperation. John Fleck/Inkstain Denver Post

Protecting Hawaii's Reefs Means Cutting Tropical Fish Collection. That's the impact of a ruling by federal judges in the 1st Circuit Court. The court voided all 131 outstanding aquarium permits issued by the state of Hawaii, blocking the harvest of a quarter-million fish annually. This ruling blocking recreational harvesting of tropical fish comes on the heels of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling last fall, which held that all commercial aquarium collection permits in the state had been issued illegally. Hawaii's conservation groups.have been fighting to protect the reefs and marine wildlife. Wisconsin Gazette

If Mojave Desert Groundwater Is Sent to Cities, Can Bonanza Spring Survive? Yes, say studies by Cadiz Inc., the company selling the groundwater. No, says a new study, which links the spring — the biggest in the southeastern Mojave — to the same deep pool of groundwater from which Cadiz plans to pump 16 million gallons annually. Andy Zdon, a hydrogeologist, determined that Bonanza Spring seems to have a "hydraulic connection" to the deep aquifer Cadiz will use. "The spring is going to be highly susceptible to drawdown from the pumping," he said. "It would likely dry up." Desert Sun

Wyoming Area Set Aside for Species in a Collaborative Process Now May Be Leased. County commissioners in the southwestern section of the state object to the fact local Bureau of Land Management officials have been stripped of their ability to postpone leasing decisions, while examining environmental effects. They fear that the new policy, removing decision-making to the bureau's Washington, offices threatens the 522,236 acres of the Greater Little Mountain Area — and the work of a years-long collaborative effort — to optimize the area's management. Proposed leases would allow drilling along a 150-mile mule deer migration route. WyoFile

To Thrive, the Conservation Movement Needs Buy-In by People of Color. But this video report on the fraught history of the National Park Service and non-white visitors shows that if people of color need to learn more about the value of parks, parks need to know more about people of color. Grist

March 21, 2018

New Mexico's State Government, Allied With Landowners and Outfitters Against Fishermen, kayakers, canoeists, lets property owners certify the public streams crossing their land as private property. Those sections of public waters are then no longer a place where people can fish, paddle or float. A 2015 New Mexico law, made concrete last December, gives them license to do so. "Prohibiting access from the public is privatizing what has been historically ours, and the way this happened is chilling," said Robert Levin, the New Mexico director of the American Canoe Association. The Guardian

Is Relentless Decline of Ogallala Aquifer Inevitable? Maybe Not. Stretching from South Dakota to Texas, the aquifer has been, for decades, the subject of stories of overpumping, and dark indications that things are going too far. But some 60 Kansas farmers realized the continued pumping could mean their piece of the aquifer might effectively be tapped out before their heirs had a chance to work the family land. They agreed to cut water withdrawals by 20 percent per year through 2017. The self-restraint was a test of farming skills they thought they could pass. A pair of recent economic and hydrological assessments by Kansas State University and the Kansas Geological Survey showed pumping restrictions did not damage farm profitability, and they aided the aquifer. Circle of Blue

The Border Splits the Tohono O'Odham Tribe, and the Border Controls Attitudes split Tonhono O'ogham generations. The older generation is more willing to cooperate with the federal government, and with a track record of supporting and enhancing border security. Some of the younger, activist and idealist generation is eager to put tribal sovereignty above the needs of the federal government. They are aggressively opposed to the militarization of their reservation. And then, there are those in between, like Art Wilson, Tohono O'odham legislative councilman, who likes the security of the existing fence, but is upset to be separated from relatives in Mexico. . "It's complicated," he said. High Country News

The Reintroduction of Wolves to Yellowstone National Park Had Benefits Beyond those of revitalized wolf packs. "We're just uncovering these effects of large carnivores at the same time their populations are declining and are at risk," said William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University. The Yellowstone reintroduction helped an entire ecosystem, studies show. In the places where they returned, wolves tidied up explosive deer and elk populations and helped bring back trees and shrubs. Birds and beavers, as well as the animals that live in dams, also returned. The New York Times

Sea Otters’ Comeback Success Hampered by Sharks. For decades, numbers of otters, protected by endangered species laws, have mostly increased, swelling to 3,200 individuals. But their range appears to be constrained. The otters can't seem to survive farther north than Santa Cruz or south of Santa Barbara. Their burgeoning numbers and restricted territory have led to overcrowding and, in some cases, starvation and death. Why can't they widen their territory? Studies indicate that sharks won't let them. Hakai Magazine

March 8, 2018

There Are Whispers of Another Wyoming Oil and Gas Boom in Converse County, an area which has experienced a downturn in the markets for all its extractable resources – coal, uranium, oil, and gas. But the hints of a boom are a reminder of the impacts of the bust, particularly on the schools. As one teacher said: "You see the effect that it has on the kids. The socioeconomic effect. … You had this in the classroom," when students' parents had been laid off. "They'd say: "Why did my parent lose their job?" From a community standpoint, county officials said, gradual growth is far better. Via the Casper Star-Tribune's Energy Journal podcast. Casper Star-Tribune

A Montana Entrepreneur Wants to Turn a High Butte Into a Battery that could even out the inevitable peaks and valleys in solar- and wind-powered electricity. The intermittent nature of electricity generated by renewables makes it hard to build a grid on their power, unless an additional power source can ensure constant power. Using the established method of pumping water uphill in times of high energy supply and letting it run down through turbines to make up for low energy supply, the planned battery-in-a-butte has received most of the permits it needs to be built near Martinsdale, an area where six wind turbines already provide power. Seattle Times

A Plan for Cleaning Up Utah Lake Would Let Developers Create Islands With Subdivisions, The West's third-largest freshwater body is overloaded with nutrients left by years of sewage disposal; there is also heavy phosphorus contaminations. Cleanup costs are estimated at between $7 billion and $9 billion. The state legislature is considering the project. Salt Lake Tribune

A New App Allows Water Quality Monitoring by Arizona Hikers and birders and others enjoying the outdoors. Using cellphones or tablets, they can input observations about everything from wildlife to visible pollution and water flow. The information goes to the state department of water quality. The app, developed by Arizona Water Watch, a program that also trains citizen scientists to collect water samples, has a geolocation feature. Cronkite News

The Venture Capitalist Vinod Khosla, Trying to Cut Off Access to Martin's Beach, heads to the California Supreme Court. The beach, a coastal nook a little south of San Francisco, can only be reached though a private road on the 53 acres of Khosla's shoreline property. After he bought the land, he locked the gate to the beach. He is now fighting against what he calls "Orwellian" laws governing the coast, particularly those giving power to the California Coastal Commission. The lawyer opposing Khosla said, ""The only way they can find for Vinod is to throw out the entire California coastal program." The Guardian

Feb. 15, 2018

Biologists Sequence California Redwood Genome to Aid Preservation Efforts. As climate change threatens the vitality of coastal redwood stands, scientists are mining genetic data for clues about how to cultivate more diverse and resilient forests. Sequencing the tree’s 38 billion base pairs will help forest managers make future conservation decisions. Washington Post

New Map Visualizes Fragmentation of Western Rivers. Although the American West is known for free and flowing rivers, more than 49 percent of its river miles have been modified from their natural state by dams, diversion, or development. A new interactive map showcases the regions disappearing waterways. Center for American Progress

Across the West, Engineers, Energy Companies Target Untapped Geothermal Resources. A new technology called enhanced geothermal systems could unlock up to 500,000 megawatts of energy across the region. In the heart of the Mojave Desert, one company is already planning a power plant to harness the abundant renewable resource. NPR

Battling Water Scarcity, Imperial Valley Farmers Switch to Lettuce. Since 2001, lettuce acres are up 79 percent, while alfalfa, which consumes much more water, is down 21 percent. The shifting agricultural landscape has raised water levels at Lake Mead, which stores and distributes the water of the Colorado River. Bloomberg

Wyoming Legislators Advocate for Yellowstone Conservation Fee. Seeking to capitalize on Yellowstone National Park’s four million annual visitors, lawmakers in Wyoming have proposed that the National Park Service implement a conservation fee. The revenue generated would help protect wildlife outside the park in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, including parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Casper Star-Tribune

Feb. 2, 2018

Montana Property Owners Block Access to Public Lands as Class Tensions Simmer. An estimated 4 million acres of public lands are landlocked by private, government, or tribal lands. From Wyoming to Idaho to Utah, public access through private land is a hot-button issue in the West. In an effort to broker agreements and settle disputes, Montana has hired the first public lands access specialist in the country. The Guardian

California Water Diversions Power Wine Industry at the Expense of Migratory Fish. For decades, hydroelectric dams and underground pipes have channeled the Eel River’s flow to the nearby Russian River. Now conservation groups are pushing to restore the river’s natural path, to help the struggling salmon population. Local farmers and wineries are pushing back. Water Deeply

New App Allows Users to Report Damage to Utah Public Lands. Conservation groups have developed TerraTRUTH, an application that uses crowdsourced data to report vandalism and illegal ATV use. The developers hope that the new technology will help guard areas that lost federal protections in the recent cutbacks to the Bear Ears National Monument. Salt Lake Tribune

Oil Industry Shows Signs of Recovery in Wyoming, but Jobs Return More Slowly. In 2014, the plummeting cost of oil caused layoffs across the state. During the years of economic downtown, companies learned how to operate more efficiently. Now the industry’s resurgence is outpacing its labor market. Casper Star-Tribune

Soil-Fumigant Ban Promises to Transform California’s Strawberry Industry. For years, hiring companies to fumigate soil was standard practice, but new regulations to protect consumer health and surrounding ecosystems will have wide-ranging effects for the industry’s producers and consumers. Treehugger

Jan. 22, 2018

Uranium Mining Industry Seeks Resurgence in Navajo Nation Borderlands. Mining companies aggressively lobbied Secretary Zinke to shrink Bears Ears National Monument and lawmakers to ease mining restrictions, creating new opportunities for America’s nuclear industry. But members of the neighboring Navajo Nation, still recovering from the consequences of mining decades ago, worry about the health effects. The NEW YORK TIMES

Rock Art Experts Spar with BLM, Energy Companies Over Fate of Utah Petroglyphs. The Bureau of Land Management has begun leasing parts of Emery County for oil and gas drilling. As the energy industry and preservationists argue over potential adverse effects, one photographer is determined to discover and map the region’s rock art sites. SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

More Than 50 Yellowstone Bison Headed for Fort Peck Tribes Escape. Biologists had held the group of bison in captivity for almost two years to ensure they were free of brucellosis. The National Park Service launched a criminal investigation this week after discovering evidence that bolt cutters were used to free the bison. BILLINGS GAZETTE

Tribal Members, Conservationists Collect Lichen Trying to Rescue Last Caribou Herd in the contiguous United States. A coalition of environmentalists created an 18-acre maternity pen in British Columbia last year to protect birthing caribous from predators. Now they are collecting hundreds of pounds of lichen to sustain the population. OREGON PUBLIC BROADCASTING

Rodenticide on California Marijuana Farms Poisons Endangered Owl Species, a new study indicates. Northern spotted owls primarily eat rats, exposing them to the dangerous poison. Despite efforts from government regulators and environmentalists to phase out the products, rodenticides are widely available in stores. Scientists worry legalization of recreational marijuana will lead to more rat poison in the ecosystem. SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE