California is sinking—and fast.
While the state’s drought-induced sinking is well known, new details highlight just how severe it has become and how little the government has done to monitor it.
Last summer, scientists recorded the worst sinking in at least 50 years. This summer, all-time records are expected across the state as thousands of miles of land in the Central Valley and elsewhere sink.
But the extent of the problem and how much it will cost taxpayers to fix are part of the mystery of the state’s unfolding drought. No agency is tracking the sinking statewide, little public money has been put toward studying it and California allows agriculture businesses to keep crucial parts of their operations secret.
The cause is known: People are pulling unsustainable amounts of water out of underground aquifers, primarily for food production. With the water sucked out to irrigate crops, a practice that has accelerated during the drought, tens of thousands of square miles are deflating like a leaky air mattress, inch by inch.
Groundwater now supplies about 60 percent of the state’s water, with the vast majority of that going to agriculture. Tens of thousands of groundwater pumps run day and night, sucking up about 5 percent of the state’s total electricity, according to a Reveal analysis of the increased pumping resulting from the historic drought. That’s an increase of 40 percent over normal years – or enough electricity to power every home in San Francisco for three years.
The sinking is starting to destroy bridges, crack irrigation canals and twist highways across the state, according to the US Geological Survey.
Two bridges in Fresno County—an area that produces about 15 percent of the world’s almonds—have sunk so much that they are nearly underwater and will cost millions to rebuild. Nearby, an elementary school is slowly descending into a miles-long sinkhole that will make it susceptible to future flooding.
Private businesses are on the hook, too. One canal system is facing more than $60 million in repairs because one of its dams is sinking. And public and private water wells are being bent and disfigured like crumpled drinking straws as the earth collapses around them—costing $500,000 or more to replace.
The sinking has a technical name: subsidence. It occurs when aquifers are drained of water and the land collapses down where the water used to be.
The last comprehensive survey of sinking was in the 1970s, and a publicly funded monitoring system fell into disrepair the following decade. Even the government’s scientists are in the dark.
“We don’t know how bad it is because we’re not looking everywhere,” said Michelle Sneed, a hydrologist with the geological survey. “It’s frustrating, I’ll tell you that. There is a lot of work I want to do.”
Some places in the state are sinking more than a foot per year. The last time it was this bad, it cost the state more than a billion dollars to fix.
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