CORCORAN, Calif. —
Earlier this year, 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 overpumping 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 overpumping 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.
“California taxpayers are basically subsidizing overdraft of groundwater,” she said, “subsidizing the profits of a few who take a resource that is shared by all.” -Margaret Lirones, Corcoran
Lost in the chaotic scramble was the fact that just months before the water began rising in the ancient Tulare lakebed, the local agencies responsible for managing groundwater pumping had insisted that subsidence — and the subsequent flooding and destruction it might cause — was not an immediate problem. Read more here.