San Joaquin Valley Water Crisis Didn’t Happen Overnight
Out of all the headlines about the California drought, the places getting the most attention are those little towns in the San Joaquin Valley that most of us have never heard of: East Porterville, Exeter, Monson and others. And rightly so. Most of the state’s residential well failures are in these towns, forcing thousands of people to depend on others for a basic human need.
But this was a predictable outcome of the drought. In fact, it wasn’t even necessarily caused by the drought.
As Laura Bliss informs us on citylab.com, well failures in these San Joaquin Valley towns are a symptom of economic and racial discrimination that began nearly a century ago. Most of these towns were settled by farmworkers, Dust Bowl refugees and descendants of slaves who simply wanted a place to live as they pleased.
When settlement began in these areas in the early 1900s, many people built their own homes and dug their own water wells. And that was just fine with local government officials, who paid little attention then or since.
Bliss unearths a chilling statement from Tulare County’s 1971 General Plan, which reads almost like a death sentence for these small towns:
“Public commitments to communities with little or no authentic future should be carefully examined before final action is initiated. These non-viable communities would, as a consequence of withholding major public facilities such as sewer and water systems, enter a process of long-term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities.”
But those communities did not blink out. They only got worse. Not only did groundwater levels decline, but the water became unhealthy to drink. Along the way, government officials at all levels dragged their feet.
It continues to this day. Even as state and local government officials deliver tanks and bottles of water to help residents cope with the drought, there is little talk of long-term solutions.
“The county does not have the resources or the funding to provide services to all the unincorporated communities,” says Bernard Jimenez, Fresno County’s deputy director of planning. “That’s just the way it works.”
Central Valley Groundwater at Historic Lows
A new report by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey shows that heavy groundwater extraction in California’s Central Valley has sucked aquifers to new historic lows, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.
In some cases, these new lows are more than 100 feet below prior record lows. One consequence is land subsidence. As water is extracted, soil layers collapse, resulting in a permanent loss of aquifer storage capacity and shrinkage in surface elevation above ground.
“Over time,” the authors write, “the extra pumping has stressed the aquifer, which for decades has had an overall loss in storage. The Central Valley has been depleted by about 1.85 km3 (1.5 million acre-feet) per year on average since 1960 … and has been depleted about twice this rate during the current drought.”
The groundwater losses and land subsidence are not limited to the San Joaquin Valley. For example, significant effects have been recorded in the Sacramento Valley near the city of Davis. But problems in the San Joaquin Valley have been better documented both historically and in recent years. The effects are also more dramatic in the San Joaquin Valley because soils there are more prone to compaction.
Along with the new report, the USGS also unveiled a new website documenting the subsidence and groundwater extraction problems in the region.
The Whims of Drought: A River Reborn
Water shortages do strange things to nature, and to the handiworks of man. Latest example: Water levels at New Melones Reservoir have declined so far because of the drought that treasured rapids are racing again on the Stanislaus River after being submerged nearly 40 years.
“I’ve been groping all those years and every year since to describe the magic of every square foot of this river and what it does to people’s lives,” Mark Dubois, a longtime advocate for the Stanislaus River, told KQED News, “and I still have no words for it.”
Recently, Dubois and others rafted sections of the Stanislaus that have not been accessible in decades. They were riding Class III whitewater 40 feet below the “bathtub ring” of the shrunken New Melones Reservoir. That free-flowing river has been hidden ever since the 2.4 million acre-foot reservoir was completed in 1979.
Along the way, they encountered rocky cliffs, old bridges and dead trees four stories tall that have been under water for 26 years. There were also young willow trees already sprouting from the newly exposed river banks.
“Losing a place you love is like losing a person you truly love,” said Gina Cuclis, a college student in the 1970s who joined a campaign then to save the river from inundation. “It’s not a person but when it’s a place that has touched you, changed you, you feel a deep loss.”
Top image: In this July 2, 2015 picture, Christine Dunlap holds an image of her Oklahoma ancestors in their community of Okieville, on the outskirts of Tulare, Calif. The Dunlaps have lived in Okieville since it was founded as a migrant camp for Midwesterners fleeing drought to California in the 1930s. (Gregory Bull, Associated Press)