clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Huge Sections of California are Sinking Because of the Drought

New, 81 comments

California's epic statewide drought has lead to mandatory water restrictions and a new state pastime, droughtshaming, but less-discussed is the fact that the drought is SINKING THE STATE. The Center for Investigative Reporting looked into just how bad the sinking has gotten and found that there's not a lot being done to monitor the phenomenon at a statewide level, and equally little money being put toward studying it, despite the fact that it's causing infrastructural problems across California and will continue to do so. CIR also found that key elements for studying the dangerously accelerated sinking of the state aren't accessible to scientists because "California allows agriculture businesses to keep crucial parts of their operations secret." The cause of the sinking is known, and it's happened in California before. Once, it was even as bad as geologists think it might be now. Back then, it took more than $1 billion just to repair some of the damage.

Subsidence is caused when water is pulled out of underground water aquifers in "unsustainable amounts." This usually happens during food production—as the water is pumped up to the surface, the ground beneath starts to lose what's holding it up, like a Capri Sun pouch relieved of its fruit-flavored contents. Pumping water from underground sources isn't new, but it's a practice that's been kicked into overdrive during the drought. (That's been the habit during previous droughts in California too.) "Groundwater now supplies about 60 percent of the state's water," says CIR, though they don't note the pre-drought percentage.

Even though subsidence is a real, known thing, and its causes are known too, there's apparently no state-level structure in place for scientists to monitor where this drought-related sinking is at its worst, how fast its happening, or anything much about it at all, really. "We don't know how bad it is because we're not looking everywhere," a scientist with the US Geological Survey says. The last time a thorough sinking survey was done was the 1970s.

What is known is some of the damage the sinking has already caused: a dam that's part of a larger canal system is sinking and will cost more than $60 million to fix; water wells for both public and private uses "are being bent and disfigured like crumpled drinking straws as the earth collapses around them"; a Fresno County elementary school is in the middle of a "miles-long sinkhole" that makes them vulnerable to floodwater; and two bridges over canals in the same county have sunk so low they are almost totally underwater. (They've sunken before in previous droughts, like giant drought monitors.) Unfortunately, many agencies mentioned in the article, both state and private, are not in the habit of charting subsidence-related repairs, and so they can't really offer information toward calculating how much sinking is happening or what it's costing people.

Subsidence-watching has a history in California. Years of charting the phenomenon show that the sinking was at its worst in the 1960s. (Repairs to just some of the infrastructure that was damaged then cost about $1.3 billion, according to a California Water Foundation estimate.) The drastic sinking slowed in the 1970s—after the completion of a massive public works project to building a system of canals that would ferry water to these drier, agricultural climes from elsewhere in the state. Doing so meant that people could ease up on sucking the ground dry.

But startling damage has been done. Between 1925 and 1977, the earth in one tower 40 miles west of Fresno had fallen about 30 feet. There's a famous picture documenting where a farmer would have been standing in 1925 and where he was actually standing in 1977:

A 2012 report looking at the San Joaquin Valley suggests that, at least in that area, rates of subsidence could be nearing 1960s peaks again. 2012 figures showed that in the area around one town, land was sinking as much as a foot a year. It hasn't been monitored since, but it's possible land could be sinking two feet a year—a new record. Tens of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure repairs are required in the area because of the effects of the sinking, and it's not just there. "[V]ineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties, areas around Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, and agricultural regions encircling Los Angeles" have all shown signs of subsidence, though, as mentioned, it's not clear at what rate.

Last year, the state passed a law aimed at regulating groundwater use, but farmers don't have to comply until 2040. One scientist with the geological says that even if farmers stopped sucking water out of the ground today, the water levels are so low that the sinking would have effects for years at least, and maybe for decades.
· California is sinking, and it's getting worse [CIR]
· Here Are 10 People Droughtshaming Their Neighbors on Twitter [Curbed LA]