Water & Drought

July 19, 2014

West-side San Joaquin Valley water calamity may be unfolding

After the water table below Stratford dropped an astounding 100 feet in the past two years, it set off a slow-motion collapse of the ground underfoot, crushing part of a town well.

Repairs were made quickly, but the crumpled well holds significance beyond this Kings County town of 1,200. After three dry seasons -- the last one being one of the driest on record -- summer havoc has begun for west San Joaquin Valley groundwater.

Some west-side wells have dropped nearly 200 feet over the past two years, nearing historic low points dating back to the 1950s, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

"I've never seen anything like it," says USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed, who has been studying Valley groundwater for the past two decades.

As the water table drops, the ground sinks perhaps faster than anyone has ever recorded it, jeopardizing canals, dams, buildings, roads and bridges.

The drawdown is happening because farmers are desperately pumping water to keep their orchards and other crops alive.

The drought and environmental protections this year have resulted in a zero allocation of Northern California river water from the federal Central Valley Project for farmers over more than 2 million acres of the west side.

The loss of groundwater is taking place across a multibillion-dollar agricultural landscape. The scale of the issue is mind-boggling.

Westlands Water District, the country's largest irrigation district, estimates its farmers will pump a record 670,000 acre-feet of water. That's about five years worth of water for Fresno, a city of 500,000.

"We're making history, but not in the right way," Westlands spokeswoman Gayle Holman says.

The 600,000-acre Westlands district, whose farmers grow almonds, cotton, grapes, garlic, beans and other crops, is not alone out there.

It is part of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing water agencies covering 2.1 million acres. That's the size of Los Angeles times seven.

Decades before the dams, canals and reservoirs of major water projects, west-side farmers mainly used wells to irrigate crops on less land.

In the half century between the 1920s and the 1970s, the USGS recorded nearly a 30-foot drop in the landscape near Mendota in west Fresno County. Federal scientists at the time called it one of the largest alterations on earth.

Farmers in Westlands and other west-side districts began buying Northern California river water several decades ago, hoping to stop the drain of groundwater in the region. It largely worked, the USGS said.

But the drain is starting to happen again -- only faster, according to Sneed.

"We're on course for a 30-foot drop in 30 years," she said.

In the past, sinking land has been responsible for millions of dollars in damage to irrigation canals that lose capacity. The ground sinks naturally in the Valley and many places across the globe. But not this fast.

Federal scientists say the west-side landscape generally won't rise back to its previous level after collapsing. And when the water table drops, farmers and cities will need to drill deeper for water.

Sneed said the groundwater extends thousands of feet below the surface, but water at such depths could be tainted by chemicals and salinity. The saline water is a leftover from a time when an ancient sea filled the Valley.

She said there are other problems with tapping deep water: "It's expensive to drill, and you pay higher costs to lift the water to the surface."

In Stratford, southeast of Lemoore Naval Air Station, the damaged well is nearly 1,300 feet deep -- many hundreds of feet deeper than most city wells around Fresno and the east side of the Valley.

Stratford, where generations ago the Kings River drained into the now-dry Tulare Lake, should be able to continue pumping water, said Jon Demsky, manager of the Stratford Public Utility District.

He said the district will continue to monitor the 6-year-old well carefully for any other subsidence problems.

"The water table is down at 320 feet now," Demsky said. "The well is drilled down to 1,290 feet. We should be OK."

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