CORCORAN, California – In the San Joaquin Valley, California, Corcoran has a million-dollar problem. It’s almost impossible to see, yet it’s so large that it requires NASA scientists to use satellite technology.
Over the past 14 years, the city has sunk to 11.5 feet in some places – enough to swallow the entire first floor of a two-story house and to make Corcoran one of the fastest sinking areas in the country at times. to experts from the United States Geological Survey.
Subsidence is the technical term for the phenomenon – the delayed depletion of land that occurs when large amounts of water are extracted deep underground, causing underlying sediments to fall on themselves.
Every year, Corcoran’s entire 7.47 square kilometers and its 21,960 inhabitants sink just a little, as the ground drops from a few centimeters to almost two feet. No houses, buildings or roads crumble. Decline is not so dramatic, but its impact on the city’s topography and the business books of the residents was very important. And although the latest satellite data since 2015 showed that Corcoran has sunk only about four meters in some areas, a water management agency estimates that the city will drop another six to 11 feet in the next 19 years.
Already the casings of drinking water wells have been smashed. Flood zones have shifted. The city hall had to be rebuilt at a cost of $ 10 million – residents’ property tax bills rose by about $ 200 a year for about three years, a sharp price in a place where the average income is $ 40,000.
The main reason why Corcoran sank is not nature. This is agriculture.
In the Corcoran and other parts of the San Joaquin Valley, the land has been declining gradually, but gradually, mainly because agricultural companies have been pumping groundwater for decades to irrigate their crops, according to the USGS California Water Science Center.
When farmers do not get enough surface water from local rivers or canals that bring Northern California river water into the San Joaquin Valley, they turn to what is known as groundwater – the water below the earth’s surface that needs to be pumped out. They have been doing this for generations.
Corcoran’s situation is not unique. In Texas, the Houston-Galveston area has been sinking since the 1800s. Parts of Arizona, Louisiana and New Jersey have experience problems. The foundations of Mexico City churches famously tilted and a study from 2012 found that Venice is declining at a rate of 0.07 inches per year.
But how Corcoran began to plunge nearly 12 feet in more than a decade is not a story, but of water, and the ways in which water is in Central California are powerful – so much so that many residents and locals leaders downplay the city’s sink or ignore it altogether. Few in Corcoran are eager to criticize agricultural companies that provide jobs in a struggling region because they help cause a little-known geological problem that no one can see.
“This is a risk for us,” said Mary Gonzales-Gomez, a lifelong Corcoran resident and chair of the Kings County Board of Education. “We all know this, but what are we going to do? There is really nothing we can do. And I do not want to pull. ”
A modified landscape
This is known as the Corcoran Bowl – an area in the middle of farmland in and near Kings County that sometimes stretches up to 60 miles. The bowl is the region of deep zinc in the country, with Corcoran in the middle – a sinkhole against a snail’s pace.
Jay Famiglietti helped identify the Corcoran Bowl, although he worked for an agency for much of his career, focusing more on what is in outer space than on what is underground. He is a former senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Southern California research center known for assisting planetary missions.
Scientists at the NASA lab formed an extraordinary bond with Corcoran, and they sank for years and years in the San Joaquin Valley using radar and satellite technology.
Mr. Famiglietti, now the director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, had already started warning in 2009 about severe downfall in the valley based on satellite images. Years later, one of his colleagues started at the Jet Propulsion. Lab, Cathleen Jones, documented more than 30 inches west of Corcoran.
“There is no way to avoid it,” he said. Famiglietti said. ‘The scale of the bowl produced from the pump is huge and that may be why people do not notice it. But a careful analysis will find that there is a lot of infrastructure at risk. ‘
Some of the infrastructure has already been damaged.
The Corcoran irrigation district had to install three lifting stations to pump water through ditches. The water used to run solely on gravity, but the sink sank into the ditches and allowed the water to flow together instead of flowing through. The district spent $ 1.2 million on elevator stations for more than ten years to help push the water, the cost paid by farmers.
The sinking land shattered the casings of four drinking water wells used by the city. Insurance paid for two new wells, but city taxes were used to drill the other two at a cost of $ 600,000.
And there was the shore that was rebuilt in 2017 for $ 10 million. The bank sank from 195 feet when it was built in 1983 to 188 feet in 2017.
“Our residents have been hit hard,” Dustin Fuller said. He is the director of the Cross Creek Flood Control District and led the repairs on the shore. In addition to the higher property tax bills, some residents bought flood insurance for the first time.
Amec Foster Wheeler Environment and Infrastructure Inc., an engineering firm, has investigated how zinc near Corcoran could affect the construction of the California Highway Railroad, a portion of which is being built along the eastern edge of the city. Sinking has changed the topography so that it appears that three flood zones are merging. According to the engineering report, Corcoran and nearby towns could be engulfed in 16 feet of water in a major flood.
The engineers have brought their concerns to government agencies. But no agency detected infrastructure damage by sinking, and no response was made to their report.
Along Highway 43
The land around Corcoran is linked to agriculture, and so is the economy.
The city is known as the home of a difficult state prison that once housed Charles Manson. Corcoran rests along Highway 43, about 200 miles from both Los Angeles in the south and San Francisco in the north. Nearly 30 percent of working-age residents work in the agricultural industry, and more than 30 percent of residents live in poverty.
Several major agricultural activities surround Corcoran, including Sandridge Partners, the JG Boswell Company, Hansen Ranches, the Vander Eyk Dairies and many others. Together, they have hundreds of wells that fetch water from under the flat, fertile lands around Corcoran.
How much groundwater is pumped by farming enterprises is almost impossible to determine. California does not require the information to be disclosed.
Boswell is by far the most prominent agricultural industry in the area. The company started in Corcoran in 1921 and has grown into a $ 2 billion international company. It has provided collaborative work for generations of Kings County generations and has been an integral part of the city’s identity, and has even helped build the high school football stadium.
Boswell operates more wells in the area than most other ag businesses, and much deeper. It owns 82 active wells around Corcoran, the majority of which are 1,000 to 1,200 feet deep or 2,000 to 2,500 feet deep. The nearest largest nearby well owner, Vander Eyk Dairies, has 47 wells, of which only 1,000 feet deep or deeper.
Boswell’s status as one of the largest and deepest groundwater pumps in the Corcoran area – and its decision to sell portions of its surface water – raised questions about its role in Corcoran’s subsidence.
Some residents and local leaders have said they believe Boswell is relying more heavily on groundwater for its crops because it has sold surface water from the area for significant profits. In just two sales in 2015 and 2016, one water district in Fresno County purchased 43,000 acres of Boswell water for $ 43.6 million.
“If you sell your water, you have no groundwater business,” said Doug Verboon, a Kings County supervisor and farmer.
Others in the area say it is impossible to blame any water user for Corcoran’s complicated and long history of zinc.
“We are all pumping,” said Gene Kilgore, general manager of the Corcoran Irrigation District, who installed the elevator stations and served Boswell and other companies. “Every producer pumps, every city pumps, and we all play what role there is to sag.”
Local representatives of Boswell said there is not enough data to know which water user pumped the quantities. All transfers and exchanges of the company’s surface water have been approved by state water regulators.
Boswell executives at the company’s headquarters in Pasadena did not respond to emails and calls.
The owners of Sandridge Partners and Vander Eyk Dairies declined to comment. A manager at Hansen Ranches did not respond to requests for comment.
The effects of the drought
California was again conquered by severe drought. The situation will most likely make Corcoran sink even more.
In the 1960s, California built the State Water Project, a water storage and delivery system, to move water from the north to parched lands in the Central Valley and further south.
Much of the water comes from the ecologically sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where concerns about endangered fish have limited how much water can be exported. Amid the current drought, farmers have been told to expect only 5 percent of their contracted water allocations.
This means that farmers may be forced to pump more groundwater to compensate for the lack of surface water. This happened during California’s last prolonged drought, from 2012 to 2016, when the land of Central Valley sank at a high rate.
State lawmakers responded by passing a law aimed at stopping water-related landslides. The law, known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, requires water basins to be balanced by 2040, which means that more water cannot be pumped out than it goes into the ground.
Karla Nemeth, the director of the Department of Water Resources, says excessive groundwater pumping and its effects on Corcoran are issues that should warrant further investigation.
“The condition of Corcoran is the absolute poster child for the legacy of uncontrolled groundwater pumping that is unacceptable in California and that ultimately gave the groundwater law,” Ms. Nemeth said.
Ana Facio-Krajcer contribution made.
This article was produced by SJV Water, the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and The New York Times. The collaboration between SJV Water and CCIJ was led by the Institute for Nonprofit News as part of a project called “Tapped Out: Power, Justice and Water in the West. ”