Water flowing underground – Subsidence in the Golden State

Into the blue again
After the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime
Water flowing underground
— The Talking Heads

Dr. Joseph Poland demonstrating Land Subsidence in the United States, USGS USGS Fact Sheet-165-00. Credit: United States Geological Survey http://water.usgs.gov/ogw/pubs/fs00165/

My late father was a groundwater hydrologist. He started his career in India, traveling to remote villages to study water, wells, and the lives they helped sustain. My mother and I often went with him.   I was far too small to remember it but, there are photographs. We came to the United States in 1970 so he could get his Ph.D. at Berkeley, which he did in 1975. He continued his work on the flow of water in groundwater systems at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and eventually ended his career back at Cal as a faculty member.

Our home always had the sounds of Dad and his colleagues talking about fluid flow in porous rocks, aquifers, and the impacts of man on both. When energy becomes tight, people look under the earth for geothermal power and agriculture has always relied on cheap, subsidized subsurface water for crops.  This all comes at a price. Take fluid out of the ground and the ground sinks. This is land subsidence, it is a problem, and it is getting worse. The hydrologic cycle is one of the marvels of the world that few think about. Evaporation, transport, condensation, rain. The only way to recharge the groundwater stores is to let this cycle happen and unfortunately, we aren’t. Part of it is the drought, influenced by many complicated factors in which we humans play a part. Part of it is development and a lot of it is rampant use with flagrant disregard for the future.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has paid attention and issued this warning: California is Sinking and it is Getting Worse
It is a concise and factual account that deserves a wide audience. The photo of Dr. Joseph Poland in that article and shown here demonstrates the effects of 50 years of 20th Century pumping in the San Joaquin Valley.  I’ve known this picture since childhood. Dad had a copy of it and would discuss it readily with anyone who was interested. The two of them were colleagues and friends; my father thought the world of Joe Poland and his contributions. In the last few years of his life, my father attempted to generate broader interest in the social implications of water. He organized courses, interdisciplinary symposia, and was at work on a monograph on water as a fundamental human right to be stewarded by people of good conscience in the public interest.   Dad assumed such people existed and that such ideals could be achieved.  The eternal optimist had a cynic for a son.  I agreed with his hopes but believed and still do believe that the darker forces will first make a market of this right and then set about cornering it.

Dad’s book was designed to educate the people of India where this access is under some threat but was actually a broader statement. Sadly, he was felled by the effects of lymphoma before he could complete it.   But, even on that very last day on this earth,  his laptop was with him in Stanford Hospital and he was work on it.   I have the files on my computer and perhaps someday I should undertake to try and have them completed.

Thanks to Kevin Roderick and LA Observed for the tip to the CIR article.

Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime (Full Length Version) (1980/ 2013) (HD)
Watch this video on YouTube.

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