Their land is sinking: Farm barons defy calls to cut groundwater pumping

January 5, 2024

January 5, 2024

In 2023, as floodwaters rushed toward the San Joaquin Valley city of Corcoran—home to roughly 20,000 people and a sprawling maximum-security state prison—emergency workers and desperate local officials begged the state for help raising their levee.

Corcoran had been sinking, steadily, for years because of persistent over-pumping of groundwater by major landowners in the Tulare Lake Basin that has sent the valley floor into a slow-motion collapse. And the levee raises made in 2017—a multimillion-dollar effort funded by local property tax hikes and the prison system—were no longer up to the job. Ultimately, the state agreed to pour $17 million into another round of levee engineering in an effort to save the town.

Farmers, meanwhile, were frantic as the basin’s phantom lake reemerged for the first time in 25 years and floodwaters surged onto croplands that had not flooded in modern times. The same over-pumping that was sinking Corcoran had caused geologic transformations across the basin. What was once high ground suddenly wasn’t; infrastructure critical to drainage had in some cases shifted; water flowed in unexpected ways.

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