Behind the scenes of the town that’s sinking

May 2, 2022
By Adam Echelman

Hacienda Flood Cell swell Company’s shallow inland reservoirs

Popular with pelicans, the mid Hacienda Flood Cell as seen on March 2, 2021, originally built to hold flood water, is filled with groundwater pumped from Boswell Company land. This cell is one of three on the southern end of Boswell’s property outside of Corcoran. While this cell has a capacity of 40,000 sf, the three cells combined have a total capacity of 140,000 sf. The water will be held for months, with up to 50% loss due to evaporation, to be used for summer irrigation.

In the San Joaquin Valley, a vast inland sea stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s actually a series of shallow reservoirs, but there are so many that flocks of pelicans come to roost. These reservoirs belong to the J.G. Boswell Company, a major agricultural company, which has been selling its river water, pumping more water out of the ground and storing excess supply in these reservoirs.

“That is not fair, for one, and incredibly wasteful, number two,” says veteran water reporter Lois Henry. 

The image of those reservoirs — and Henry’s indignance about them — became the impetus for her investigation into the Boswell Company, its competitors and the lives of thousands of people who are affected when water leaves the valley and the land around them sinks. That investigation has since circulated around the world, from the pages of the New York Times to publications in Ghana and Peru, but how Henry turned one image into two feature-length articles is a story in itself. 

She started reporting on water in California’s central valley in the late 1990s after combing through advertisements at the Bakersfield paper where she worked as assistant managing editor. Henry noticed something odd: the county where Bakersfield sits was in the midst of a drought, but local agencies were placing ads selling their excess water. 

It turned out that the state of California was buying back water that it had sold to agencies in the county. Rather than ship water from the capital, Sacramento, to counties near Bakersfield, hundreds of miles away, the state was essentially purchasing access to water it had once sold. 

But that wasn’t even the oddest part. She realized that the local agencies in her county were selling water back to the state at a considerably higher price, turning a sizable profit out of a bureaucratic measure. “And the more you start pulling that string,” says Henry, “The more you start going, ‘Wow, this doesn’t seem right.’” 

Years later, she started a bi-weekly column for the local paper and wrote about the politics of water as often as she could. Henry was unrelenting and hyper-focused on holding local water officials accountable. She was also  self-deprecating about how dry the topic could be. “What’s new in water? Oh, I thought you’d never ask,” Henry jokes in one of her last columns. 

By the time she started looking into Boswell’s inland reservoirs in 2020, Henry still didn’t have all the answers, but she did know the right questions to ask – chief among them: where was Boswell’s river water really going?

CCIJ introduced Henry to a local photographer, Ryan Christopher Jones, to follow her lead, but his images shifted one of her stories. Jones’ photos chronicled how small farmers felt the impact of Boswell’s behavior. These farmers relied on that groundwater to keep their businesses alive, and unlike Boswell’s company, which is among the largest in the country, these small landholders have few resources to compete. 

The CCIJ team pushed Henry to also consider Boswell’s main competitor, Sandridge Partners, which was selling and pumping water in massive quantities, too. It was this ongoing conversation between reporters, photographers, editors and, later, data visualists that enabled the story to coalesce. 

In California’s central valley, pulling water out of the ground is more than just a business problem. In the last 14 years, the town of Corcoran, flanked by Boswell and Sandridge farms, has sunk up to 11.5 feet in some places. Taxes went up across town in order to pay for the reconstruction of a levee that could mitigate the loss, but it was a huge burden on the working-class residents to pay for. 

As the story flowed, CCIJ worked with Henry and the New York Times to craft a cohesive narrative, though it quickly became unwieldy. The New York Times wanted to focus on the notion of a sinking town. So Henry spent another two weeks diving deeper into the mechanics of Corcoran in order to assess the impact that sinking had on everything from California’s high-speed rail to the local school. 

At times, she felt like she was shoving the story into a tiny box that would never close. While the piece that was published in the New York Times, “The Central California Town that Keeps Sinking,” didn’t dive into the politics of water that Henry knows so well, it did make the plight of Corcoran accessible to a broad and national readership. 

But the other story — one about the politics of the region’s major companies and their impact on small farmers — was just as important. With the help of CCIJ and Jones, Henry published a second article, “Where is the Water Going?”, that details the impact of pumping water from the ground on business and traces where Boswell and Sandridge are sending their excess river water. 

While these two, bisecting features on water in California’s central valley have been republished 28 times across the US and around the world, Henry isn’t interested in the fame or recognition. “What makes a difference is focusing on the small stuff that nobody goes to,” says Henry. Going to local meetings, talking to people on the street, sorting through government documents – “that is hard, hard, tedious work.” 

In 2019, she founded SJV Water, a new media platform that focuses exclusively on water, and it’s these local stories that give her the most pride. During a municipal meeting in 2019, for example, she heard a public official outright admonish local districts for lying about their groundwater usage. “I was just, like, grabbing papers,” she says with a laugh. It was the first story she published for SJV Water, but soon after, the governor called the county government to inquire more. 

“Anytime that we write stories that really explain what the heck is going on around here,” she says, “People take notice.”