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 pumping, initiation of water-level recovery, and a reduced rate of compaction in some areas of the San Joaquin Valley. However, drought conditions during 1976–77 and 1987–92, and drought conditions and regulatory 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 Delta-Mendota Canal, the California Aqueduct, and other canals that deliver irrigation water and transport floodwater.
The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, assessed land subsidence in the vicinity of the Delta-Mendota Canal as part of an effort to minimize future subsidence-related damages to the canal. The location, magnitude, and stress regime of land-surface deformation during 2003–10 were determined by using extensometer, Global Positioning System (GPS), Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), spirit leveling, and groundwater-level data. Comparison of continuous GPS, shallow extensometer, and groundwater-level data, combined with results from a one-dimensional model, indicated the vast majority of the compaction took place beneath the Corcoran Clay, the primary regional confining unit.
Land-surface deformation measurements indicated that much of the northern portion of the Delta-Mendota Canal (Clifton Court Forebay to Check 14) was fairly stable or minimally subsiding on an annual basis; some areas showed seasonal periods of subsidence and of uplift that resulted in little or no longer-term elevation loss. Many groundwater levels in this northern area did not reach historical lows during 2003–10, indicating that deformation in this region was primarily elastic.
Although the northern portion of the Delta-Mendota Canal was relatively stable, land-surface deformation measurements indicated the southern portion of the Delta-Mendota Canal (Checks 15–21) subsided as part of a large subsidence feature centered about 15 kilometers northeast of the Delta-Mendota Canal, south of the town of El Nido. Results of InSAR analysis indicated at least 540 millimeters of subsidence near the San Joaquin River and the Eastside Bypass during 2008–10, which is part of a 3,200 square-kilometer area—including the southern part of the Delta-Mendota Canal—affected by 20 millimeters or more of subsidence during the same period. Calculations indicated that the subsidence rate doubled in 2008 in some areas. The GPS surveys done in 2008 and 2010 confirmed the high subsidence rate measured by using InSAR for the same period. Water levels in many shallow and deep wells in this area declined during 2007–10; water levels in many deep wells reached historical lows, indicating that subsidence measured during this period was largely inelastic. InSAR-derived subsidence maps for various periods during 2003–10 showed that the area of maximum active subsidence (that is, the largest rates of subsidence) shifted from its historical (1926–70) location southwest of Mendota to south of El Nido.
Continued groundwater-level and land-subsidence monitoring in the San Joaquin Valley is important because (1) regulatory- and drought-related reductions in surface-water deliveries since 1976 have resulted in increased groundwater pumping and associated land subsidence, and (2) land use and associated groundwater pumping continue to change throughout the valley. The availability of surface water remains uncertain; even during record-setting precipitation years, such as 2010–11, water deliveries have fallen short of requests and groundwater pumping was required to meet the irrigation demand. Due to the expected continued demand for irrigation supply water and the limitations and uncertainty of surface-water supplies, groundwater pumping and associated land subsidence is likely to continue in the future. Spatially detailed information on land subsidence is needed to facilitate minimization of future subsidence-related damages to the Delta-Mendota Canal and other infrastructure in the San Joaquin Valley. The integration of subsidence, deformation, and water-level measurements—particularly continuous measurements—enables the analysis of aquifer-system response to increased groundwater pumping, which in turn, enables identification 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.