22 June 2024
San Joaquin flooding: Agricultural giants resist reducing

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Amidst the 2023 San Joaquin flooding crisis, the city of Corcoran, with a population of approximately 20,000 and a large state prison, faced imminent danger as waters surged. Emergency personnel and city authorities urgently appealed to state officials for assistance in enhancing the levee system, while agricultural magnates continued their heavy groundwater pumping despite the risk.

The Sinking Land of Corcoran: A Growing Concern



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Published on: March 20, 2023 Description: Drone video showed houses in California's San Joaquin Valley partially underwater due to flooding caused by heavy rainfall.
Heavy flooding hits California's San Joaquin Valley
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In 2023, the city of Corcoran in the San Joaquin Valley found itself in a dire situation. Floodwaters were rushing towards the city, putting its residents and a maximum-security state prison at risk. Local officials desperately pleaded for help to raise their levee, but the underlying cause of the problem was much deeper than the immediate threat of flooding.

The Consequences of Over-Pumping Groundwater

Corcoran had been sinking for years due to the excessive pumping of groundwater by major landowners in the Tulare Lake Basin. This relentless over-pumping had caused the valley floor to collapse slowly, leading to subsidence and a host of other issues. The levee raises made in 2017 were no longer sufficient to protect the city from flooding.

The same over-pumping that was sinking Corcoran had also caused geologic transformations across the basin. Infrastructure critical to drainage had shifted, water flowed in unexpected ways, and the basin’s phantom lake reemerged for the first time in 25 years, flooding croplands that had never experienced such a phenomenon.

Ignoring the Warning Signs

What is truly alarming is that just months before the flooding occurred, the local agencies responsible for managing groundwater pumping insisted that subsidence was not an immediate problem. They doubled down on this assessment in reports to state regulators, despite evidence of sinking ground, fracturing roads, and depleting drinking water supplies.

Since 2015, Corcoran has experienced nearly 5 feet of subsidence, while areas outside the town have sunk as much as 6 feet. The situation became so dire that the state had to step in with a $17 million investment to save the town.

The Battle Between State Regulators and Land Barons

The state is now attempting to enforce a decade-old law that limits groundwater pumping in the Tulare Lake Basin. However, major landowners in the region have resisted these regulations, leading to a confrontation between state regulators and the powerful land barons.

State water regulators have taken the first step towards putting the Tulare Lake region on probation for its lack of progress in reducing groundwater pumping. This move gives the state the power to require landowners to install meters on their wells, report their pumping rates, and pay fees based on the water they draw.

The Challenges of Regulating Groundwater

Regulating groundwater in the West has always been challenging, especially in regions where decisions about water and land use are primarily controlled by a small group of farming families and agribusiness conglomerates. The resistance from these powerful landowners has led to foot-dragging and infighting among the local agencies responsible for managing groundwater pumping.

The Tulare Lake sub-basin, along with other sub-basins in the San Joaquin Valley, has made little progress in developing a plan to reduce pumping to sustainable levels. The lack of cooperation and progress has led to the state’s pending disciplinary action.

The Impact on Communities and Infrastructure

The consequences of over-pumping groundwater extend beyond the sinking land. The subsidence has resulted in billions of dollars in damages to infrastructure, including roads, canals, bridges, and levees. The California Aqueduct, a critical water transportation system, has required significant investments to protect and retrofit it.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, aimed to address the issues of over-pumping and declining water levels across the state. However, the Tulare Lake Basin, along with other critically overdrafted basins, has struggled to develop sustainable groundwater management plans.

The Fight for Change

State regulators are now taking steps to hold the Tulare Lake water agencies accountable. They are demanding accurate monitoring of groundwater extraction, the establishment of minimum thresholds for groundwater levels, and assessments of critical infrastructure and susceptibility to subsidence.

However, powerful landowners and their associated agencies are pushing back, viewing the state’s actions as unnecessary regulatory overreach. The battle between state regulators and the land barons is far from over, but the need for change is evident.

A Shared Resource with a High Cost

In the midst of this conflict, it is important to remember that groundwater is a shared resource. The consequences of over-pumping and subsidence are not limited to the land barons and their profits. The entire community, including farmworkers and residents, bears the burden of the damages and costs associated with sinking land and compromised infrastructure.

The sinking land of Corcoran serves as a stark reminder of the need for sustainable groundwater management and the importance of holding those responsible accountable. It is a complex issue with significant implications, but it is one that must be addressed for the well-being of both the land and its people.

FAQ’s

1. What caused the flooding in Corcoran?

Corcoran experienced flooding due to the sinking land caused by over-pumping groundwater in the Tulare Lake Basin. This led to the collapse of the valley floor and a host of other issues.

2. Why did local agencies ignore the warning signs of subsidence?

Despite evidence of sinking ground, fracturing roads, and depleting drinking water supplies, local agencies insisted that subsidence was not an immediate problem. This led to a lack of action and preparation for the flooding.

3. What is the battle between state regulators and land barons about?

State regulators are trying to enforce regulations that limit groundwater pumping in the Tulare Lake Basin, but powerful landowners in the region have resisted these regulations. This has led to a confrontation between the two parties.

4. What are the challenges of regulating groundwater in the West?

Regulating groundwater is challenging in regions where decisions about water and land use are primarily controlled by a small group of farming families and agribusiness conglomerates. The resistance from these powerful landowners has led to foot-dragging and infighting among local agencies responsible for managing groundwater pumping.

5. What are the consequences of over-pumping groundwater?

Over-pumping groundwater leads to subsidence, which causes infrastructure damage and compromises critical systems like roads, canals, bridges, and levees. It also has a high cost for the entire community, including farmworkers and residents, who bear the burden of the damages and costs associated with sinking land and compromised infrastructure.

Links to additional Resources:

California Department of Water Resources Public Policy Institute of California – Water Policy Center Sustainable Conservation

Related Wikipedia Articles

Topics: San Joaquin flooding crisis, Corcoran (city), Groundwater pumping in the Tulare Lake Basin

San Joaquin Valley
The San Joaquin Valley ( SAN whah-KEEN; Spanish: Valle de San Joaquín) is the southern half of California's Central Valley. Famed as a major breadbasket, the San Joaquin Valley is an important source of food, producing a significant part of California's agricultural output. San Joaquin Valley draws from eight counties...
Read more: San Joaquin Valley

Barbara Corcoran
Barbara Ann Corcoran (born March 10, 1949) is an American businesswoman, investor, syndicated columnist, and television personality. She founded The Corcoran Group, a real estate brokerage in New York City, which she sold to NRT for $66 million in 2001 and shortly thereafter exited the company. One of the show's...
Read more: Barbara Corcoran

Tulare Lake
Tulare Lake ( ) or Tache Lake (Yokuts: Pah-áh-su, Pah-áh-sē) is a freshwater lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley, California, United States. Historically, Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. For thousands of years, from the Paleolithic onward, Tulare Lake was a uniquely...
Read more: Tulare Lake

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