Ah shucks, is that land sinking again?
"We have a groundwater crisis in California, and if we're not coming up with ways to reduce its use in wet years to allow it to rebound, we are going to be in trouble," said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, which studies water management issues and supports regulation. "And groundwater storage is exactly the kind of project we need to see more of." -- Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, 2014
What do growers on the west side of the San Joaquin River, reporters, state legislators and congressmen and their staffs share? I mean the things we can mention in a family website.
Amnesia. Particularly regarding water, here in the land humans have altered more than any other land on the planet. But this kind of amnesia isn't the same as loss of memory. It is more of a willful thing, more in the nature of a willful forgetting, or suppression. On the other hand, it's not personal, not something individual or even the invention of certain politicians, for example. Much less, the invention of any particular bankers or other investors, insurance companies or hedge funds.
It's just the sound of ol' Cal-Inc growing, developing, extracting money from the state's natural resources. The simple process of pumping so much groundwater for agricultural crops has gone on so long the pumped out aquifers are collapsing, sinking the surface ground, in the most famous example, 28 feet between 1927 and 1977, and no doubt more since. Cal-Inc moves along as smooth and strong and mindlessly roaring as a great river rushing down from the High Sierra in spring. A bumper crop of almonds, the principle cause of the "drought" in the first place, is predicted; the representatives of irrigated agriculture around Los Banos, lamenting land subsidence and the terrible drought, get more surface water than any other set of farmers in the state thanks to their arcane "riparian rights."
A recent study commissioned by the California Water Foundation (1) found that land subsidence has cost $1.3 billion between 1955-1972, after the major surface water delivery systems were in place. The odds are better that government paid most of that than you can get anywhere on a craps table. And the articles below are just dealing with the grand irrigation systems of the west side of the valley; subsidence on the east side began damaging the Friant-Kern Canal. From the time it was built in 1951 until 1970, land subsided 5.5 feet in one particularly affected area. So much for the myth of surface water reducing land subsidence. All they do is plant more acreage,
Yet all we hear from these stories is farmers pumping and whining, whining and pumping. The hook for this year's story is drought. The hook for the 2012 story was the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement, which aims to put water back into the river so that fish, particularly salmon, can resume their life cycle, interrupted 60 years ago by construction of the Friant Dam and the Friant-Kern Canal, that diverted 95 percent of the river's flow from the base of the Sierra Foothills down the east side of the valley to another group of farmers who had overdrafted their wells by the 1930's.
All the state and federal tax funds for the immense water system of San Joaquin Valley did not pull this region out of poverty. It did not encourage farming on 160-acre parcels as the federal Reclamation Act dictates. In fact San Joaquin Valley agribusiness corrupted the Act and agribusiness -- the larger, the more concentrated ownership the better -- was the only special interest that benefited.
Unfair, monopolistic advantage is one thing: call it the American Way. But the piteous tone of t Perpetual Agribusiness Complaint -- particularly with the new Farm Bill that subsidizes the premiums on farm-revenue insurance up to 90 percent -- is just squealing of hogs fighting for position at the public trough.-- blj
(1) "Land Subsidence from Groundwater Use in the San Joaquin Valley," California Water Commission, July 24, 2014.
San Francisco Chronicle
California drought: As land sinks, farmers' brainstorm on water
Los Banos, Merced County --
Case Vlot pulls up groundwater through deep wells to keep his corn and alfalfa crops alive. Chase Hurley runs a water company nearby that sells river water to farmers who can't depend on wells. Normally the two would rarely talk to each other.
But that was before the drought, and before the land began to sink beneath their feet.
Now they and every farmer for miles around are talking to each other all the time, brainstorming in ways they've never had to before.
The ground is sinking because farmers and water agencies throughout the Central Valley are pumping groundwater heavily from far beneath the Earth's surface to make up for the lack of rain. The problems caused by this sinkage are many, with no easy fix in sight.
Vlot's wells are collapsing, crushed by the shifting soils. The dam Hurley depends on to divert water into the company's canals from the San Joaquin River has sunk so far - about 3 feet in just five years - that the river is threatening to spill over. If that happens, he'll have less water to distribute to farmers who grow cotton, tomatoes and a range of other crops.
The deepwater aquifer being tapped by thousands of wells throughout the valley will take generations to restore, experts say. And if the sinking isn't stopped, everything from house foundations to railroad lines - such as the high-speed rail planned for the valley - could suffer.
It's often said in farm country that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. But when the common foe is nature itself, the fight creates uncommon allies.
"We're all in the same boat here, and we have to work together on this," said Vlot, 43, who farms his 3,500 acres in Chowchilla (Madera County) to supply feed for his family cattle ranch. "A lot of us need to pump groundwater to survive, but now we can't just depend on that in the exact same way we always did before. We have to figure out how to store more water and to get more surface water.
"It's not easy, but we can figure it out. We're farmers and ranchers and that's what we do - we get things done."
Hurley, who as general manager of the San Luis Canal Co. delivers water to more than 90 growers for 45,000 acres of land, echoes the sentiment.
Another couple of years of ground sinkage caused by groundwater pumping, and he will have to rebuild at least part of his Sack Dam. In the meantime, drought restrictions have forced him to quadruple water rates to many of his customers.
Federal water officials are shipping none of their normal allotment this year for most agricultural use, and state officials are shipping just 5 percent. Some agencies such as Hurley's get more - he's receiving 65 percent of normal, his lowest allocation ever - because of historic water rights dating back as many as 100 years. But if the drought persists, harder change will come to those users, too.
"It's just become something that none of us can ignore," Hurley said as he drove through his district to check on his canals.
Hurley began to cast about for community conversation about drought challenges a little more than a year ago, and he connected with Vlot. The two have been helping lead talks since then with 25 groundwater-dependent farmers in the Los Banos-Chowchilla area to come up with solutions to their mutual problems.
Deep water layer siphoned
Vlot, whose family has been farming and ranching since the 1970s, runs 30 wells. Twenty of those go down only a 100 feet or so into a shallow aquifer, but the other 10 dip several hundred feet farther - past the vast and very tough clay layer that lies below much of the 450-mile-long Central Valley.
That's been a common farming technique for decades throughout the valley, the most productive agricultural region in the nation. But between the three-year drought and increased plantings of thirsty crops such as almonds, the deep-water layer is being siphoned up in bigger quantities than ever.
Dipping so much into that water with no rainfall to recharge it is causing the clay layer to collapse, which in turn makes the land on the surface sink. The area around Los Banos has subsided more than most areas of the valley, according to maps compiled by the California Water Foundation.
Until a few years ago, Vlot said, the annual maintenance cost on his wells was about $200,000. As the land subsidence began to crush well tubes, that tab has skyrocketed to more than $600,000 a year.
Foremost among the solutions being discussed by Vlot, Hurley and the other farmers is storing more water from rain when it does fall. Since there aren't enough reservoirs or ponds for that storage, the ad-hoc group plans to pick several fields among themselves to lay fallow so they can absorb the water and stow it underground.
"We're willing - I and others - to set aside good farm ground to be used as recharge ponds, but we do realize it's a dice roll for when that recharge will happen," Vlot said. "You're dependent on Mother Nature for the rain, and there's no way of predicting when that will come."
The main challenge is making sure that those who voluntarily leave their fields fallow are compensated for their crop loss by neighbors who benefit from the stored water.
"Farmers are being crushed by this issue, and I am facing some real trouble in the years to come if we don't do something, so there is really no choice," Hurley said. "Taking legal action against people, if anyone went that route, would be a very tough row to hoe. So we are all taking neighborly action."
Other remedies being considered include trying to capture more floodwaters in a really big rain, installing stingier irrigation methods and pushing for new reservoirs - never an easy fight, given environmental opposition.
But recharging the aquifers is the group's top priority. Doing so won't raise the land level again - once it sinks, that's it. However, adequate recharging can prevent further sinkage.
Nobody knows exactly how big the valley's draw on the deep aquifers is, since California is the only Western state that doesn't regulate its groundwater. But overall, groundwater supplies nearly two-thirds of the state's water, and scientific studies tracking the drought unmistakably tie the usage to the land subsidence.
"Subsidence is a serious issue, and we have to think about every technique we can," saidThomas Harter, a UC Davis professor who specializes in groundwater issues. "And one of those is how to take advantage of the flood flows we get - such as the ones we had in 2011 when a lot of water flowed out of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and could have been stored."
Using "the agricultural landscape" to store groundwater, as Vlot and his neighbors are planning, "is hugely important, and I'd like to see it on a very wide scale," Harter said.
"Whatever we do, we can't just stand by."
Another solution being bandied about is finally putting groundwater in California under state regulation.
Two bills making their way through the Legislature would create a regulatory system, and though most farmers would rather avoid the intrusion, others say it is necessary for the future health of California's water supplies.
"We have a groundwater crisis in California, and if we're not coming up with ways to reduce its use in wet years to allow it to rebound, we are going to be in trouble," said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, which studies water management issues and supports regulation. "And groundwater storage is exactly the kind of project we need to see more of."
To see a video that accompanies this story, go to http://sfchron.cl/1ntsVcH.
For more on the state's water issues, go to www.sfgate.com/drought.
Sinking farmland snags San Joaquin River project
BY MARK GROSSI
The San Joaquin River restoration has hit a strange snag -- a vast area of swiftly sinking farmland. It means the much-heralded return of salmon runs to the state's second-longest river will wait a little longer.
Over the past two years, irrigation pumping near the river has caused a two-foot dip in the landscape across many square miles on the Valley's west side, federal engineers say.
Now, just months from the start of major construction in the restoration, the engineers must rethink the $25 million replacement of Sack Dam, which will have special features for salmon passage.
If the land keeps sinking, a new dam could be overrun and farmers would lose irrigation water. Also, salmon might die if they swim over the top of a screen that will be installed to keep them out of a large irrigation canal, called Arroyo Canal.
Options are being considered, including raising the height of the dam and the screen, said Alicia Forsythe, restoration program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. She said it might be necessary for pumps to be installed to get river water into Arroyo Canal.
This is the latest and perhaps most unexpected hurdle for one of the nation's most complex river restorations, which has a price tag of nearly $900 million.
The program was scheduled this month to begin salmon migration from places near Fresno all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But there isn't a clear path around Sack Dam and the Mendota Pool for fish to move up and down the river yet.
Instead, biologists have been capturing adult salmon and hauling them to the river near Fresno for spawning -- part of the continuing experiments. Until Sack Dam and other projects are built, the full restoration of salmon won't happen.
Sack Dam, which captures water for 45,000 farmland acres, is in the most troubled stretch for the restoration. The stretch is about 60 river miles along the Valley's west side where the river dried up in the early 1950s after Friant Dam was built.
A new Sack Dam will be built with both a fish ladder and a system to raise and lower the dam so salmon can pass through. A new screen on Arroyo Canal will prevent salmon from accidentally straying into the irrigation system for farmers west of the San Joaquin.
A sinking landscape is too widespread and subtle to notice easily, experts say. The problem at the river was discovered this year when irrigation districts noticed they were having trouble getting as much irrigation water as they usually capture.
Federal engineering reports confirmed land subsidence, which lowers canals and reduces the amount of water that can be carried.
Farmers on the east side of the river in Madera County have been pumping more water from deep underground to support crop expansions and changes in the past several years. The farmers, who reportedly did not realize there was a problem, rely on groundwater.
Area water districts are working with the farmers on a plan to limit the deep-water pumping. It's a huge issue, says Chase Hurley, general manager of San Luis Canal Co., which relies on Sack Dam, the delivery canal and the river.
"That's my only turnout for water," Hurley said. "We're encouraged that everybody is working together on this."
The deep-water pumping goes down 300 to 800 feet, below ancient layers of clay soil. When the water is drained from these areas, the clay layers collapse, Hurley said.
He and another leader, Chris White, general manager of Central California Irrigation District, say it's important to replenish underground water at shallow depths so the deep-well pumping stops. They propose using excess water in wet years to form recharge ponds.
"The idea is to help them get water from shallower wells," White said. "You won't get this kind of subsidence if the pumping takes place above the clay at shallower depths."
San Joaquin Valley, California: Largest human alteration of the land's surface
Central California Irrigation District, September 2013
Page 9: Western Madera County and Merced County: Groundwater pumping and land subsidence solutions, Chris White, Central California Irrigation District
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Lester Snow directs the California Water Foundation and leads integrated resource management projects. Mr. Snow has a distinguished record of innovation and results working on complex natural resource management matters. Most recently, he served as California Secretary for Natural Resources, where he oversaw 25 departments, commissions, boards, and conservancies, and served as chief advisor on issues related to the state's natural, historic, and cultural resources. During this time he also served as chairman of the California Ocean Protection Council and served on the Delta Conservancy, Delta Protection Commission, and the Strategic Growth Council. Previously, Mr. Snow was Director of the California Department of Water Resources, where he headed a Department that protects, conserves, and manages California’s water supply, including operation of the California State Water Project, the largest state-run, multi-purpose water and power system in the United States. Mr. Snow has also served as Executive Director of CALFED, regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, General Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, and spent six years with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, including four years as Tucson area director. Mr. Snow holds a Master’s degree in Water Resources Administration from the University of Arizona and a Bachelor’s degree in Earth Sciences from Pennsylvania State University.