California Oil, Gas, and Groundwater Program

Publication: Reports and Papers


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Sneed, M., Brandt, J.T., and Solt, M.


U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5144



Extensive groundwater withdrawal from the unconsolidated deposits in the San Joaquin Valley caused widespread aquifer-system compaction and resultant land subsidence from 1926 to 1970—locally exceeding 8.5 meters. The importation of surface water beginning in the early 1950s through the Delta-Mendota Canal and in the early 1970s through the California Aqueduct resulted in decreased groundwater pumping, recovery of water levels, and a reduced rate of compaction in some areas of the San Joaquin Valley. However, drought conditions during 1976–77, 1987–92, and drought conditions and operational reductions in surface-water deliveries during 2007–10 decreased surface-water availability, causing pumping to increase, water levels to decline, and renewed compaction. Land subsidence from this compaction has reduced freeboard and flow capacity of the California Aqueduct, Delta-Mendota Canal, and other canals that deliver irrigation water and transport floodwater.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the California Department of Water Resources, assessed more recent land subsidence near a 145-kilometer reach of the California Aqueduct in the west-central part of the San Joaquin Valley as part of an effort to minimize future subsidence-related damages to the California Aqueduct. The location, magnitude, and stress regime of land-surface deformation during 2003–10 were determined by using data and analyses associated with extensometers, Global Positioning System surveys, Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, spirit-leveling surveys, and groundwater wells. Comparison of continuous Global Positioning System, shallow-extensometer, and groundwater-level data indicated that most of the compaction in this area took place beneath the Corcoran Clay, the primary regional confining unit. The integration of measurements strengthens confidence in individual measurement methods and provides the information at spatial and temporal scales that water managers need to design and implement groundwater sustainability plans in compliance with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Measurements of land-surface deformation during 2003–10 indicated that the parts of the California Aqueduct closest to the Coast Ranges in the west-central part of the San Joaquin Valley were fairly stable or minimally subsiding on an annual basis; some areas show seasonal periods of subsidence and uplift that resulted in little or no longer-term elevation loss. Many groundwater levels in these areas did not reach historical lows during 2003–10, indicating that deformation nearest the Coast Ranges was likely primarily elastic.

Land-surface deformation measurements indicated that some parts of the California Aqueduct that traverse farther from the Coast Ranges toward the valley center subsided. Some parts of the California Aqueduct subsided locally, but generally the California Aqueduct is within part of a 12,000-square-kilometer area affected by 25 millimeters or more of subsidence during 2008–10, with maxima in Madera County, south of the town of El Nido near the San Joaquin River and the Eastside Bypass (540 millimeters), and in Tulare County, west of the town of Pixley (345 millimeters). Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar-derived subsidence maps for various periods during 2003–10 show that the area of maximum active subsidence (that is, the largest rates of subsidence) shifted from its historical (1926–70) location southwest of the town of Mendota to these areas nearer the valley center. Calculations indicated that the subsidence rate doubled in 2008 in parts of the study area. Water levels declined during 2007–10 in many shallow and deep wells in the most rapidly subsiding areas, where water levels in many deep wells reached their historical lows, indicating that subsidence measured during this period was largely inelastic.

Continued groundwater-level and land-subsidence monitoring in the San Joaquin Valley is important because (1) operational- and drought-related reductions in surface-water deliveries since 1976 have resulted in increased groundwater pumping and associated water-level declines and land subsidence, (2) land use and associated pumping continue to change throughout the valley, and (3) subsidence management is stipulated in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The availability of surface water remains uncertain; even during record-setting precipitation years, such as 2010–11, water deliveries fell short of requests and groundwater pumping was required to meet the irrigation demand. In some areas, the infrastructure is not available to supply surface water, and groundwater is the only source of water. Because of the expected continued demand for water and the limitations and uncertainty of surface-water supplies, groundwater pumping and associated land subsidence remains a concern. Spatially detailed information on land subsidence is needed to minimize future subsidence-related damages to the California Aqueduct and other infrastructure in the San Joaquin Valley, as well as alterations to natural resources such as stream gradients, water depths, and water temperatures. The integration of data on land-surface elevation, subsurface deformation, and water levels—particularly continuous measurements—enables the analysis of aquifer-system response to groundwater pumping, which in turn, enables estimation of the preconsolidation head and calculation of aquifer-system storage properties. This information can be used to improve numerical model simulations of groundwater flow and aquifer-system compaction and allow for consideration of land subsidence in the evaluation of water resource management alternatives and compliance with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.