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As Californians Pump Groundwater, Land Sinks and Aquifers Shrink

So much groundwater is being pumped in parched California that the land is sinking, aquifers are shrinking, and surface water canals are buckling.
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So much water is being pumped from the ground in parched California that the land is sinking, according to scientists.

The more Californians rely on groundwater, the worse these problems will get, experts across industry, government, and academia say. But, they said, the pumping is likely to continue given a confluence of factors that range from urban population growth to an expanding agricultural industry.

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"The underground groundwater is the reserve bank account," Richard Howitt, a professor emeritus of agricultural and natural resource economics at the University of California, Davis, said a press briefing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., while unveiling a new report on the economic impacts of the drought. California is unusual among Western states, he said, for not measuring its groundwater.

The groundwater riches will not last forever. The new report shows that the 2014 drought will result in a massive reduction in surface water available to agriculture. Groundwater pumping is expected to replace 75 percent of that surface water deficit at a pumping cost of $454 million.

No policy, more pumping

"We have backed ourselves into a problem by not having a policy in place, ever, on groundwater," John Hofer, the executive director of the California Groundwater Association, a Santa Rosa-based trade group that represents the well drilling industry, told NBC News. "So," he added, "what do we do now? That is a really, really good question. I wish I had an answer. I wish our association had an answer. We don't."

"We are taking water that hasn't been touched in millions of years."

As a general rule, anyone can drill a well on their property in California, explained Kim Hammond, a representative of Arthur and Orum Well Drilling Inc. in Fresno. The company, which was founded by her father in 1971, runs six drilling rigs, two around the clock. It currently has a 12-month backlog. "We are going out of our minds. It is just crazy," she told NBC News.

To find water, the company is also drilling deeper than it ever has before, Hammond said. Where there is water, she said, so many farmers are pumping it that the land is sinking, which causes wells to collapse. A good portion of the family's work, she said, is drilling deeper on properties with collapsed wells. "We are taking water that hasn't been touched in millions of years," she noted.

Sinking land

In one area of the San Joaquin Valley, accelerated groundwater pumping is causing the land to sink about a foot a year, said Michelle Sneed, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento. What's more, she said, the subsidence is permanent due to the geology of California's aquifers.

Sneed discovered the subsidence while studying the impact of groundwater pumping during times of drought on federal surface water canals that deliver snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada to Central Valley farmers.

"If we are not able to go to our groundwater supplies when surface water is short then we are out of business, we are checkmated."

"If subsidence is happening at the same rate for the entire canal, then it wouldn't matter, nobody would really care," she said. "But what happens is it subsides different amounts in different places along the canal and much of the canal relies on gravity to move the water. And in order for gravity to work, you need to have every elevation upstream on the canal higher than every elevation downstream."

Dips of even a few inches upstream or downstream means lower volumes of water moving through the entire system, limiting surface water deliveries even during times when there is water available.

"We've handicapped ourselves," said Daniel Merkley, the water resources director for the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento.

With lower surface water flows, farmers are forced to pump even more water from the ground, which exacerbates subsidence, according to Janet Sierzputowski, a Sacramento-based spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the federal surface water delivery network.

"There is nothing reclamation can do to prevent this absent an ability to deliver surface water, which is simply not available due to the drought," she said in an email to NBC News. Subsidence has not impacted federal water deliveries, she added, but "we are aware it has impacted privately owned distribution systems that rely on gravity flow and must now resort to pumping the surface supplies up (hill)."

Farmers aware, still pumping

Farmers are well aware of the excessive demands on the groundwater supplies and the risks of continued, unregulated pumping, according to Merkley. But, he added, "If we are not able to go to our groundwater supplies when surface water is short then we are out of business, we are checkmated."

As it stands now, farms with adequate wells and groundwater are doing just fine despite — and probably because of — the drought, according to Vaughn Easter, the farm manager at Kern Ridge Growers in Arvin, Calif., which packages carrots, bell peppers and oranges from its own and other growers throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

"Farming has always been a hit and miss kind of business," he said in an email. "When Mother Nature hits a particular crop, area, state or region, those unaffected may benefit by better prices. It sure looks like we are getting better prices on bell peppers this year because some have cut or laid out their acreage because they have a shortage of water."