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Prism Online - April 1996

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Sinking State

by Forrest Miller

[ Water in the West ]California is sinking. Land in north San Jose, along Alviso Creek, has sunk 13 feet; land in the Long Beach-Santa Ana area 18 feet; and desert land in the San Joaquin Valley sunk 30 feet between [TK].

"Roads crack, pipes break, bridges have to be lifted up," says Gil Bertolini, land subsidance expert for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Siphoning of groundwater was the cause and farmers, industrialists and those who live by the Old West code of "first in time, first in right" were the culprits. Enforcement laws are lax, and unless municipal infrastructures are threatened [correct?] land will continue to sink around the state.

"A hundred years ago you could drill 5 feet down and water would come gushing out. Today, you'd have to drill 200 feet to even reach the water," Robin Grossinger, of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, says of the Alviso Creek area.

In 1920 farmers pumped 40,000 acre feet-enough water to fill as many football fields a foot deep-out of the Santa Clara Valley's aquifers. By 1950 they were pumping 100,000 acre feet. With the changing economy and urbanization, industries became the primary users of underground water. By1960 industry outpaced farmers almost 2 to 1in water use, according to the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Between the years 1920 and 1965 the valley, once above sea level, subsided 4 inches a year, bringing it 13 feet below sea level, threatening floods in northern San Jose. Dirt levees were erected in 1980 to hold back the San Francisco Bay's waters at high tide.

Still, in many parts of the state, mostly in rural areas where municipal interests aren't jeopardized, individuals are free to pump water without restriction. "Essentially you or I could go out and drill for water wherever we want," says Bertolini

In the arid and semi-arid West water is gold. For those who have it, or can get it, it means the difference between opportunistic wealth and going broke. While surface water is abundant in Northern California, it's a scarcity in the Central and Southern regions. Roughly 45 percent of California's water comes from the ground, according to the State Water Resources Department.

The struggle for water dates back to the missionaries of the 18th century. Constructing crude but durable aqueducts they would transport water from the nearest rivers and streams to the adobe missions that lined the California coast. With the Gold Rush California's population skyrocketed from 14,000 in 1848 to 380,000 in 1860. Among those willing to gamble on the state's rich topographical resources were the farmers, who saw agricultural riches in such valleys as the Imperial, San Joaquin, Central, Cuyama and Santa Clara.

Before 1965,without reservoirs or water projects like the Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project, and with little rainfall, farmers were forced to install wells to reach the underground aquifers that provided the lifeblood for their crops and livestock. With the creation of the CVP and State projects the need for groundwater decreased substantially. But by that time the damage was done.

By 1980 the State Department of Water Resources identified 42 basins in California as being overdrafted. Overdrafting occurs when so nuch underground water has been sucked out of aquifers that it causes the land to subside. Cuyuma Valley basin in northern Santa Barbara County, Kern County basin, Ventura County basin, and the Pajaro basin in southern Santa Cruz County, were among those most critically affected, according to the State's Department of Water Resources.

Land near Davis, near Sacramento, sunk 5-feet; Palmdale in Ventura County, the same amount; and land between Stockton and Tracy, 15-feet, according to Bertolini.

Until 1903 the rule of the land was "first in time, first in right," and this applied to groundwater, too. Residents of the state laying claim to sections of land also owned the water underneath. By 1903 water wars had increased to the point where the California Supreme Court struck down the "absolute ownership" law, realizing it was not suitable in an arid environment, and allowed others to siphone underground waters. But, the siphoning of water by all "others to such amount of water as may be necessary" only increased the land subsidence. Primary ownership was restored to overlying owners in 1949.

In efforts to manage groundwater control the state acheived, through the court's, the power of first claim to underground water. But, still adhering to the time honored doctrine of independent right's of land owners the state did not impose laws restricting underground pumping. Rather, the nine State Regional Quality Control Boards, backed by the State Superior Court, decided to require permits for those wanting to siphone underground water. Unlike the State of Arizona which passed the State Groundwater Act of 1980, establishing that all water pumped from the ground must be replaced by surface water to balance the aquifer,basically, California's groundwater laws and enforcement was left to local authorities.This policy was created to protect critically damaged areas of subsidence and to protect municipal interests.

To combat land subsidence state and local water departments "recharge," or inject, the aquifers with surface water, although this is done not by law but to protect municipal interests.

The subsided lands can never rise to the elevations they once were Alviso Creek will remain at 13-feet below sea level- but, by recharging, the aquifers maintain balance, preventing further subsidence, according to Bertolini.

"After the extent of subsidence was determined the water district took responsibility of recharging," Teddy Morse, Santa Clara Water District representative, says. "We import the water from 10 resevoirs, in the county, and if we need more we can import from the State Water Project."

Because in California groundwater is a common-pool necessity, and in the absence of state enforcement laws, current groundwater management allows for continued expansion of pumping by farmers and industrialists.

Bertolini says that if groundwater siphoning isn't curtailed current rates of extraction will eventually render farming and ranching unprofitable, deplete property values and jeopardize California's emergency reserve of "rescue source" water.

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