California Dreamin,’ take six: Long-term consequences of ground water depletion

Note: Here are the first five takes.

11065882_10153230744350127_5659558369900235736_nThe last time I was in Seattle with family, I went for a walk with my brother-in-law John Cowan, who has worked as a consultant in the area of water and the environment for 35 years. We were talking about the California drought, and at one point he said something that struck me, sunk in. Something about how, when you deplete ground water, then the land above it sinks, which reduces the capacity of the aquifer. This had never occurred to me — not that the land above it sinks, but that, as a consequence, the capacity of an aquifer shrinks.

Over these months, as I’ve read story after story on the California drought, I’ve never heard this part of the story even mentioned, much less focused on. Even Mother Jones, in a long story about the sinking of California— technically, it’s called “subsidence” —

It occurs when aquifers are drained of water and the land collapses down where the water used to be.

did not even point out this simple fact to which John first alerted me. See:

California is literally sinking into the ground

What the report did focus on, was the damage to this generation’s infrastructure — of buildings, roads, canals, bridges, etc. on the surface of the Earth. When the land sinks, these structures tend to crack, break, lean, or topple — costing lots of money. And of course, money, as usual, is the bottom line, as demonstrated in the subtitle for the same story:

And it’s going to cost taxpayers big time

This report is full of arresting quotes and photos, including these:

The sinkhole is so vast that it is essentially impossible for residents to see that they are standing in one.

Lets let that fact “sink in” for a moment, eh?


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That not even journalists appear to be paying attention to the fact that the capacity of aquifers shrinks when we seriously deplete them way ahead of their recharge rates shows, once again, this culture’s refusal to think long-term, its rampant greed for getting whatever we can, right now, and the future of both Mother Earth and our children’s children’s children be damned.

This morning I phoned John to talk about this further. In a 20 minute conversation, we also touched on how white settlers destroyed the original function of the Salton Sea (he refers me to the New Yorker, two new pieces I have yet to read: The Dying Sea, and Where the River Runs Dry), the entitled attitude of both long-term farmers and rich people, how the cheap cost of water allows wasteful irrigation practices, the history of crazy water politics in the region, HAARP’s possible geo-engineering role in the drought, and the likelihood that, rather than pricing water for what it’s really worth (the most precious resource on the planet, without which all Earthlings die), instead, the government is more likely to take over all water by declaring eminent domain.

In a mournful tone, John concluded, “we have forgotten that we are here to tend the garden, not ruin it.”



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