Posted: 7:23 p.m. Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Scientists say pumping more groundwater in Bay Area could be catastrophic

Scientists say Bay Area land is sinking
Scientists say Bay Area land is sinking

By John Fowler


One of the most important sources of water in this drought year is groundwater from wells. But in the Santa Clara Valley, the land has sunk over the years from pumping groundwater.  

Scientists say the ground is sinking now and the consequences of pumping more groundwater in a drought year could be catastrophic.

Dozens of high-tech businesses, such as Intel, Yahoo and  Google as well as homes and highways, are threatened by their location on land which is at risk of sinking near rising waters.

The problem is dramatically visible in the town of Alviso, where the land has sunk 15 feet. U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologist Steve Ingebritsen says that put dry land below sea level, and now that area has to be protected by an extensive system of dikes and levees.

Climate predictions have bay waters rising ever faster. The Facebook headquarters could go underwater, built near the Bay, only inches above high tide.

An animation created by UC Berkeley Geophysicist Estelle Chaussard shows a pattern of ground rising in the winter in San Jose, and then sinking down in summer.  

The sinking has become worse in recent drought years.” It is exactly like breathing,” said Chaussard. “As water gets in, the ground goes up, and when water gets out, the ground goes down.”

Without rain, water must be brought in from elsewhere. Chaussard worries, “if there’s no precipitation anywhere in Northern California like it’s the problem now, it is a problem to be able to import water.”

The Santa Clara Water District charges those who pump a lot of well water. Joan Maher with the district says, “For every acre foot pumped we collect a fee and that money goes for augmenting supplies for the county.” But, she says the district is running out of water to buy.

Water rights lawyers say that unlike most states, California generally allows landowners to pump all the groundwater they want. Maher points out that “the ultimate disincentive is simply, if people do over-pump, the water supply will not be there.” That would be catastrophic.

Maher says we must all conserve so there’ll be enough water underground to keep the surface high and dry.

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