California’s drought has caused entire towns to sink nearly a foot in just one year

Strange Sounds

The ground is sinking in parts of California as the continued drought strains reservoirs, increasing reliance on the state’s already precarious groundwater reserves depleted by years of well-pumping.

In just one year, from October 2020 to September 2021, satellite-based estimates showed entire towns in the Central Valley, including in Kings and Tulare counties, sinking by nearly a foot. The maximum loss recorded during that time was 1.1 feet on the northwestern edge of Tulare County.

The sinking, known as land subsidence, happens when excessive pumping dries out the water reserves underground and collapses the space where water used to be. Experts say it’s a century-old problem in California that regulators have tried to slow with sustainability measures. But with the changing climate, they face an uphill battle.

It’s a latent issue that’s been building over a long time and we’re kind of seeing a lot of fallout from that,” said Andrew Ayres, an environmental resources and economics researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan public policy think tank.

Land subsidence threatens infrastructure, including roads and canals, he said. Damage from it led to a $3.3 million repair project at the Delta Mendota canal in San Joaquin Valley, which delivers water to 1.2 million acres of farmland and 2 million people in the region. The repair project, the funding for which was announced April this year, is part of a larger effort by the state water department to address deficiencies in California’s water conveyance systems.

As we pump groundwater out of the aquifer, the water exists in these spaces between various layers and pieces of rock,” Ayres said. “If you pump out enough water, those places will get compressed and this leads to a loss in long-term storage.

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One thought on “California’s drought has caused entire towns to sink nearly a foot in just one year

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