Lord James Bryce (1838-1922), a British scholar, visited California and described it as, “in many respects the most striking state in the whole Union, and (it) has more than any other the character of a great country, capable of standing alone in the world.”
Bryce was impressed by the variety of social and economic possibilities as well as an ambitious citizenry. In his time, these were the essentials for an independent nation-state to achieve greatness.
During Bryce’s stay, we had a population of about 1.5 million people, up from 93,000 when we achieved statehood in 1850. Perhaps if we had maintained moderate population growth, we would have avoided some of the many problems that we face today.
But by 1925, our state held about 5 million; in 1950, more than 10 million; in 1975, more than 20 million; by the turn of the century, 34 million. Today’s nearly 40 million people are not equally distributed across the state. Instead, most are crammed together in two megalopolises and a number of other metropolitan areas.
This creates a situation that has led to severe crises. Probably foremost is the demand for water, a problem that has long plagued the state and has been exacerbated by our current drought. Initially, the huge population base in the Los Angeles basin drained Owens Lake and then sought water from further north via aqueducts and other channels. Then, carelessness in the allocation of farmlands led to untenable pressure on our underground aquifers.
Mark Corwin, Director of the Department of Water Resources, told Nature World News, “Because of increased pumping, groundwater levels are reaching record lows - up to 100 feet lower than previous records. As extensive groundwater pumping continues, the land is sinking more rapidly and this puts nearby infrastructure at greater risk of costly damage.”
The concrete sides of a canal running along the south side of Los Banos has cracked, and a nearby bridge over another canal had to be demolished and replaced because it had dropped too close to the water level. Farmland near Corcoran sank 13 inches in just eight months. North, near El Nido, there is a “bowl” about 25 miles in diameter that has dropped 10 inches. The rate of subsidence accelerated in 2014, when the land around Corcoran fell at about 1.6 inches a month and the ground south of El Nido dropped slightly more than an inch a month.
There is a gigantic aquifer that extends for about 400 miles beneath the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. The subterranean water, some of which seeped into the ground 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, is California’s biggest reservoir. Yet, it has been largely unregulated and unmonitored. The state doesn’t have good figures on how much is being withdrawn or by whom.
Much of the groundwater being pumped near El Nido is being used to irrigate a new grove of nut trees that did not previously exist and has no access to surface water. Problems like this have been confirmed by aerial imagery conducted by NASA and a Columbia University report that was issued in August.
Both sources also warn that global warming caused by industrial emissions may have intensified California’s drought by as much as 20%.
It’s bad enough that our state is being battered by drought, with wildfires consuming tens of thousands of acres, but now it appears huge pieces of the state are literally sinking into the ground.
As a result of a bizarre confluence of ground water mismanagement, drought, and earthquakes, the people of our Great Central Valley are experiencing the uncomfortable feeling that the floor is falling out beneath us.
Now retired, Jim Glenn was a 32-year professor of sociology at Bakersfield College, and taught for five years at the Madera Center of the State Center Community College. He has co-authored three books, including “California’s Social Problems” (Sage Publications - 2002). In 2007, he was awarded the John Sweet Award for Journalism by the California Teacher’s Association for “One Life, Guided by a Librarian,” one of a series of columns he wrote in an effort to reverse the Madera Unified School District’s decision to fire all of its librarians. The effort was successful.