Sinking towards catastrophe

By Lois Henry
Photography by Ryan Christopher Jones

In the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the small farming town of Corcoran has a multi-million-dollar problem. It’s almost impossible to see, yet so vast it took NASA scientists using satellite technology to fully grasp.

Corcoran is sinking.

Over the past 14 years, it has sunk up to 11.5 feet in some areas – enough to swallow the entire first floor of a two-story house. The rate of sinking, known as subsidence, varies from a few inches up to nearly two feet in a single year.

“The San Joaquin Valley, and the Corcoran area in particular, is among the fastest subsiding areas in California and the United States,” said hydrologist Michelle Sneed, a land subsidence specialist with the United States Geological Survey’s California Water Science Center.

That distinction can be an uncomfortable topic in an agricultural town like Corcoran, where residents often downplay the issue. “Some say [farmers are] pumping too much water. I don’t know if that’s a fact,” said Corcoran City Councilman Sid Palmerin.

There’s no doubt, experts say. The sinking is caused by massive agricultural pumping. When farmers don’t get enough surface water from local rivers or from canals that bring northern California river water into the valley, they turn to groundwater beneath the earth. They have for generations.

Play Video

With an eastimated yield of 3,200 gallons per minute, this one well could fill a 16x32ft swimming pool in 6 minutes.

Early march a well pumps groundwater from Boswell owned land west of Corcoran, CA into a standpipe that will move the water into a ditch that leads into an irrigation reservoir where it will be held for summer irrigation. This particular well was drilled in 2014 to a depth of 2,490 feet and has an estimated yield of 3,200 gallons per minute. At that rate, this one well could fill a 16×32 ft swimming pool in 6 minutes. Video by Lois Henry

Several large agricultural operations surround Corcoran in Kings County. There’s Sandridge Partners, the J.G. Boswell Company, the Vander Eyk and Bosman Dairies, and a multitude of others that, collectively, have thousands of wells pulling water from beneath the flat, fertile fields around Corcoran. When too much water is pumped from between the clay layers that comprise the soil, these layers compress and the land sinks.

While no one can pin Corcoran’s sinking on any single entity, the Boswell company stands out. It has far more wells, at far greater depths, than other farmers. And it has been selling large chunks of its surface water outside the area in multi-million-dollar deals.

Without that surface water, Boswell has leaned more heavily on groundwater for its crops. So heavily that, even as the state attempts to get a handle on over pumping to stop the land from collapsing, a Boswell-run groundwater agency which covers Corcoran is actually planning for the town to sink another 6 to 11 feet over the next 19 years.

Pumping water for local crops is one thing but selling water out of the area as the town sinks is another, said lifelong Corcoran resident Mary Gonzales-Gomez, chair of the Kings County Board of Education and one of the few residents willing to talk openly about what’s sinking the town.

“That makes the community of Corcoran think: Is that morally right?” asked Gonzales-Gomez.

When asked about the company’s water transfers, one Boswell employee said the company hasn’t done anything illegal, and he’s right. Its transfers have all received state approval.

All of this makes for a classic California water tale, in which the state’s toothless oversight allows a private company to earn massive profits selling off its surface water, as a neighboring town slowly sinks toward catastrophe.

Political signs on State Route 43, left and right, just outside the city limits of Corcoran, California supporting the construction of more dams. As more water in California has been pushed toward the Delta to protect endangered species and farming footprint has increase, there is greater need for dams to keep up with the demand for water by farming practices. Center, the James G. Boswell II Community Park in Corcoran, California. The park is named for the company founderÕs son who ran the company from 1949-2009 and grew it from a regional farming operational to an international farming and development corporation.

Water works

In the 1960s, California built the State Water Project to move water from the north to parched lands in the south and farmlands in the Central Valley, which, even then, were sinking from over pumping.

Much of the water comes from the ecologically sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where concerns over endangered fish have limited how much water can be exported, even in abundant water years. With 2021 shaping up to be another severe drought year, farmers have been told to expect only 5% of their contracted water allotments from the state system.

This means farmers may be forced to pump more groundwater. That happened during California’s last prolonged drought from 2012-2016, when Central Valley land sank at alarming rates. At the time, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena used satellite radar to map the scale of the sinking, identifying Corcoran as the town most adversely impacted by excessive pumping.

In response, the state, in 2014, passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires water basins be brought into balance by 2040 – meaning more water can’t be pumped out than goes into the ground. One of the law’s main goals is to stop the land from sinking.

The Sinking Town

Corcoran is like a lot of small towns in the San Joaquin Valley, its fortunes tied to agriculture. Nearly 30% of the town’s working age residents work in the farming industry. Boswell, a $2 billion company, got its start here in 1921. Though it only employs about 3% of residents now, it supplied steady work for generations. Boswell even helped build the high school stadium, gave some residents a start in business and still casts an outsized shadow with ancillary companies that rely on its contracts.

Even so, the town remains on the state’s “severely disadvantaged” list – with a median income of $40,000, an average of 16% unemployment and more than 30% of residents living in poverty.

But many residents will tell you it’s a good town, friendly and tight knit. Its downtown is quaint with refurbished, old brick buildings and tree-lined sidewalks.

Signs the town is sinking aren’t obvious. But some early indications hint at what may lie ahead.

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Jamin Coleman poses for a portrait in front of the house of his girlfriend’s aunt on the south side of Corcoran, California. Mr. Coleman says the area, sinking faster than the rest of the city, is prone to flooding and water sometimes reaches the upper part of his car’s tires.

The schools have sunk 34″ since 2015.

Madison Thomas, 18, trains her pig named “Haus” at the Corcoran High School farm. Forty percent of the kids in the high school are involved in an agriculture class.

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The Corcoran Irrigation District, which serves local farmers, had to install three expensive lift stations to pump water through ditches that previously ran using gravity alone. Pockets of sinking can create a sag in ditches, causing water to pool. Between 2009 and 2019, the district spent $1.27 million on lift stations to push the water along – but those costs were borne by the farmers, not the townspeople.

The sinking land also crushed the casings of four drinking water wells used by the City of Corcoran. Two new wells were destroyed in 2009, and two more were crushed in 2011. Insurance paid for the new wells, but city taxes were used to redrill the other two at a total cost of $600,000, according to Corcoran Public Works Director Joe Faulkner.

Then there was the town levee, which had to be rebuilt at a cost of $10 million in 2017. The levee had sunk from 195 feet when it was built in 1983 to 188 feet in 2017. Heavy rains that year threatened to swamp the structure.

Corcoran sits on the edge of what used to be the massive Tulare Lake where four rivers once dumped their waters. Though the lake has been drained and farmed for decades, those rivers – after heavy rain – sometimes come roaring back and can flood into Corcoran.

“Our residents got hit hard,” said Dustin Fuller, Director of the Cross Creek Flood District, who led the levee repairs. The average increase to each homeowner’s property tax bill was about $200 a year for three years. Some residents bought flood insurance for the first time ever.

Even though the levee has continued to sink since then, Fuller said the district cannot ask residents to tax themselves again to build it back up. They simply don’t have the means.

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A man walks through a parking lot on Whitley Avenue in Corcoran, California.

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A painted mural of regional wilderness scenes on the building for Corcoran Chamber of Commerce in Corcoran, California.

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There may be little additional evidence of sinking’s impact, but, says Jay Familglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan and former senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, it’s coming.

Familglietti began warning of severe sinking in California’s Central Valley based on satellite imagery as early as 2009. His work helped identify what’s known as the “Corcoran Bowl,” an area that can encompass up to 60 miles in some years. Corcoran is at the center of the bowl.

“There’s no way around it,” he said. “The scale of the bowl that’s been created from the pumping is large and that may be why people don’t perceive it. But a careful analysis would find there is lots of infrastructure potentially at risk” – including the aquifer that farmers pump from.

Between 2013 and 2016, Cathleen Jones, a radar scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, documented more than 30 inches of sinking west of Corcoran. In 2017, a big rain year, she said, data showed the ground rebounded by only about 5 inches.

“To me, the damage is the water,” Jones said. “Subsidence means that much water is gone. And it’s a lot of water.”

Merging Flood Zones

At the time Fuller was frantically rebuilding the Cross Creek levee in the spring of 2017, engineers with Amec Foster Wheeler Environment and Infrastructure Inc. were working on a report for the California High Speed Rail Authority about how sinking near Corcoran could affect construction of the line along the town’s eastern edge.

They found the sinking had altered the topography so much that three flood zones, designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, appear to be merging. The merging flood zones could engulf Corcoran and towns 20 miles to the north in 16 feet of water in a significant flood. As climate change alters California’s winters, experts predict the state will see more heavy periodic rain — making flood containment even trickier.

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When Amec Foster engineers brought the merging flood zones to the attention of various state agencies, including California’s Department of Water Resources, they got lukewarm responses. No one was tracking infrastructure damage from sinking in the area. And while it would be possible to build structures to corral shifting flood waters, there wasn’t any funding, nor any agencies focused on it.

Though the state agencies contacted by the engineers all agreed the sinking is a problem, none seemed to have the appetite – or the necessary authority – to take it on.

Pointing Fingers Over Pumping

While Boswell isn’t the only farming operation pumping groundwater near Corcoran, it is one of the largest pumpers, and, possibly, the deepest. Boswell owns 82 active wells right around Corcoran. About 45 of those are 1,000-1,200 feet deep. And 19 plunge 2,000 to 2,500 feet into the earth. Only a handful of public records listed those wells’ estimated yields, which ranged from 2,266 gallons per minute per well up to 4,400 gallons per minute per well.

By comparison, the next largest well owner several miles from Boswell’s lands, Vander Eyk Dairies, has 47 wells in two areas, south and southeast of Corcoran, according to public records. Only 10 are up to 1,000 feet deep. Sandridge Partners has 21 wells south of Corcoran – eight of which are 1,000-1,200 feet deep. And Bosman Dairies, southeast of Corcoran, has 21 wells – eight of which are 1,000-1,200 feet deep.

Deep pumping is significant. “That’s where it starts to cause trouble,” said geologist Tom Farr, recently retired from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If you pump too much, and how much has never been defined, the clay layers [beneath the surface] stack up and the ground won’t uncompact. You can no longer store water there.”

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A painted mural of regional wilderness scenes on the building for Corcoran Chamber of Commerce in Corcoran, California.

How much farmers are pumping is difficult, if impossible, to ascertain. California doesn’t require that information be disclosed. Even under its 2014 groundwater law, individual landowner pumping isn’t required.

That law created groundwater sustainability agencies to work with landowners to bring aquifers into balance. And while groundwater sustainability agencies in other regions reported pumping totals for each agency, that wasn’t the case in Kings County. There are five agencies in Kings County. Together, they reported pumping for the entire county instead of by individual agency.

When asked for specifics about Boswell’s pumping, Jeof Wyrick, a Boswell employee and chair of the El Rico groundwater agency, which covers Boswell lands almost exclusively, replied in an email that, “data gaps prevent accurate modeling at this time.”

“Finger pointing has become a common practice while the underlying assumptions are often speculative, misguided, misinformed, or meant to deflect blame,” he wrote. He did not respond to follow up emails. Several emails and calls to Boswell’s main office in Pasadena also went unanswered.

Water Business

While hard data on groundwater pumping is elusive, farmers and water managers in Kings County have been dismayed as they’ve watched Boswell pumps running virtually non-stop – even in late winter.

Earlier this March, water was gushing from numerous well heads scattered across Boswell lands, pulling vast amounts of water from beneath Corcoran. The water gathered in ditches where it flowed into canals and emptied into what’s known as the Hacienda flood cell, which Boswell appears to be using as a temporary reservoir to hold the well water for summer irrigation.

Lifelong residents David Quintero and his girlfriend, Christina Escobedo, on the Cross Creek Levee in Corcoran, California are among the residents who paid the tax to rebuild the levee in 2017.

Stop

the

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from

sinking.

The sheer amount of groundwater Boswell is pumping into the holding cell raised eyebrows among other farmers. They didn’t fault the company for selling and trading water. That’s how farmers manage supplies, they agreed.

But, says, Doug Vernboon, a farmer and Kings County supervisor, “If you’re selling off your [surface] water, you’ve got no business farming with groundwater. That’s affecting everyone around them” by lowering the water table. He’s tried bringing the issues of over pumping and water sales to the Kings County Water Commission, but with no luck.

“Boswell’s got things stacked so heavily, you can’t even discuss it,” Verboon said. Worse yet, the commission has not met since Feb. 24, 2020.

Concerns go beyond Kings County. The giant neighboring Westlands Water District, in western Fresno County, has also complained that the El Rico groundwater plan allows for so much pumping that its water table will be far below what Westlands is aiming for.

“It’s difficult [to maintain water levels] when right next door they’re dropping theirs 60 to 100 feet,” said Russ Freeman, Westlands’ Deputy General Manager for resources.

Paradoxically, Westlands has also been a large buyer of Boswell’s surface water out of Kings County. In 2015, the worst year of California’s epic drought, Westlands bought 8,000 acre feet of Boswell water for $15.6 million. Then again, in 2016, it bought 35,000 acre feet for $28 million. Boswell also sold 2,000 acre feet to San Luis Water District in 2015 for $3.9 million.

Groundwater flowing alongside Corcoran's Cross Creek Levee

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Oversight

Longtime Boswell employee George Wurzel said all of Boswell’s water moves have been done with approval from the state’s Department of Water Resources, tasked with holding the line on excessive groundwater pumping.

Indeed, over the past 10 years, the department has approved requests allowing Boswell to move more than 150,000 acre feet of its State Water Project water to other counties. And Boswell recently applied for a long-term transfer of all its Kings County state supplies – about 66,000 acre feet a year – south to Kern County.

When asked to comment on Boswell’s water transfers and the threat of excessive groundwater pumping, Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said those issues warrant a closer look.

In fact, Nemeth met with other Kings County groundwater agencies concerned over Boswell’s pumping in February, but said the state’s new groundwater law doesn’t give her department “special enforcement to shut things down.”

Rather, the department will move forward reviewing groundwater plans submitted by El Rico and other agencies to determine if their proposed actions are adequate to address issues such as Corcoran sinking and merging flood zones.

“I know that may be an unsatisfying answer when we’re in the throes of intense dry conditions and people are focused on groundwater pumping now,” she said.

As for Boswell’s water transfers, Nemeth said it’s clear the “math doesn’t work out.”

“We are going to need to reevaluate our transfer program,” she said. “If, in fact, we have water transfers that we know don’t mesh with an approved groundwater sustainability plan, then, yeah, that’s going to be a problem for DWR approval of those transfers.”

But the first determinations on whether those groundwater plans pass muster won’t be made until January of next year.

And Corcoran?

“The plight of Corcoran is the absolute posterchild for legacy unmanaged groundwater pumping that is unacceptable in California and that finally gave rise to [the new groundwater law],” Nemeth said. “Our biggest challenge and our biggest promise… is investing in strong local leadership, especially in underrepresented disadvantaged communities.”

There are no non-farming community members or Corcoran City officials on the El Rico groundwater agency board, which is made up of a majority of Boswell employees. That lack of community representation could be a factor in the adequacy of El Rico’s plan, Nemeth said.

All indications are that pumping will continue, and likely increase, as California heads into another drought. Meanwhile, the state appears content to largely wait until the groundwater act takes full effect in 2040, putting Corcoran in a slow-motion race against forces that are far beyond its control.

None of this is satisfying to Corcoran resident Mary Gonzales-Gomez, who still lives in the house where she was born. “We’re not stupid. We know what’s happening… But what are we going to do?”

The story was written with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Tapped Out: Power, justice and water in the West

This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, California Health Report, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, Circle of Blue, Columbia Insight, Ensia, High Country News, New Mexico In Depth and SJV Water. It was made possible by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and INN’s Amplify News Project.