U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) | June 1st, 1991
The agricultural productivity of the Central Valley depends on irrigation. Half of the 22 million acre-feet of irrigation water applied annually is ground water. The va
The agricultural productivity of the Central Valley depends on irrigation. Half of the 22 million acre-feet of irrigation water applied annually is ground water. The valley is a long, narrow structural trough filled with about 32,000 feet of sediment in the south and as much as 50,000 feet in the north. Nearly all the fresh ground water is contained in the continental rocks and deposits younger than Eocene age.
Streamflow, an important factor in recharging the aquifer system, is influenced by precipitation in the mountains surrounding the valley. The majority of recharge from infiltration of streamflow occurs on the east side of the valley. Ground-water pumpage, which greatly exceeds the natural recharge rate, has dramatically altered the ground-water flow in the Central Valley. During the 1960's and 1970's, the recharge rate was more than five times that of the predevelopment period and was largely derived from percolation of imported surface water or recirculated pumped ground water rather than precipitation and recharge from streams. Prior to development, most ground water was discharged as evapotranspiration; however, in recent years, most discharge has been well pumpage.
Computer simulation of the Central Valley aquifer system suggests that the total flow through the system has increased from about 2 million acre-feet per year to nearly 12 million acre-feet per year. The vertical movement of ground water has been artificially enhanced by many of the 100,000 irrigation wells that contain long intervals of perforated casing. When unpumped, these wells permit vertical flow between permeable layers within the aquifer system. The total fresh ground water presently (1986) in storage in the upper 1,000 feet of the aquifer system is about 800 million acre-feet.
During the 1960's and 1970's, ground water in storage was depleted at an average rate of 800,000 acre-feet annually. In the San Joaquin Valley from the 1940's to the late 1960's, substantial withdrawals of ground water were accompanied by hundreds of feet of head decline. This head decline caused inelastic compaction of fine-grained beds, resulting in land subsidence that is unequaled anywhere else in the world. More than one-half of the San Joaquin Valley (or about 5,200 square miles) underwent subsidence of more than 1 foot. In one location, subsidence exceeded 29 feet. Within the areas of heavy withdrawals, subsidence is greatest where the aquifer system contains thick sections of montmorillonite clay. Land subsidence created engineering and economic problems, including damage to canals and drainage systems, and loss of irrigation wells caused by casing failure.
More recently (since the drought of 1976-77), surface-water imports have increased, ground-water pumpage has decreased, and in places, ground-water levels have recovered. Land subsidence has virtually ceased; however, it could resume with increased pumpage, if water levels decline below previous lows.
Ground-water quality in the Central Valley is generally influenced by the water from streams that are a major source of recharge. In general, water on the east side of the valley and from east-side streams contains low concentrations of dissolved solids compared to water on the west side and from west-side streams. Concentrations of dissolved solids in ground water generally are lower in the northern part of the valley than in the southern part. There are, however, localized exceptions in many places through the valley. Local concentrations of boron, chloride, and nitrate in the ground water of the Central Valley are large enough to be a problem either to crops or humans.
Human activities have some influence on the concentration and location of water-quality problems in the valley. Significant increases in concentrations of dissolved solids and, specifically, dissolved nitrate indicate that ground-water quality is degrading as a result of increasing application of fertilizer in agricultural areas and the growth of urban population. Pesticides such as dibromochloropropane (DBCP) as well as selenium and other trace elements in agricultural drainage water cause ecological and health problems in the San Joaquin Valley.