Mining Water
A fissure formed by subsidence due to groundwater mining near Quichapa Lake in Cedar Valley. Used By Permission, Tyler Knudsen, Utah Geological Survey.

The very traditions Utah water managers praise for serving the state so well are beginning to crack -- literally.

Jay Eubanks knows this painfully well. About a decade ago, he heard about a new home development planned for old farmland in the Iron County town of Enoch. He saw it as fertile ground for growing his family's savings.

“The plan was that the home that we had built would be the first home of about 500 and would be the model home,” says Eubanks. “They would put some extras into it and lease it back from me for a couple of years. Then I could sell it, make some money.”

Eubanks and his wife raised four children in a modest home near the Salt Lake City airport. In contrast, the investment home had granite countertops, a three-car garage and other amenities. It appraised at over $300,000. But the city denied an occupancy permit.

“The inspector told me about it, and I said, ‘What what are you talking about?’ “ Eubanks recalls. “ ‘You haven't seen the sinkhole?’ ‘No.’ ‘You haven't seen the fissure where the road's broken up?’ ‘No’.

The cracks signaled the land surface was sinking. It’s called “subsidence.” And while city leaders initially thought it might be an earthquake fault, geologists quickly found a more ominous reason.

“We came out and looked at it and quickly realized that wasn't the situation,” says Bill Lund, an expert on geological hazards for the Utah Geological Survey. “We were getting earth fissures that we could trace for a number of miles north of here.”

Lund's team checked land surveys going as far back as 1939 and they took measurements with high-tech instruments. Their findings confirm the surface is sinking and the fissures are expanding. The instruments showed the fissure near Jay Eubanks' investment house spans eight miles and one side of it is about three feet higher than the other at one end. The developer used graders to erase the fissure, which farmers just north of the subdivision had been dealing with for decades.

“The aquifer in Cedar Valley is in overdraft -- that's not news. Water managers, the conservancy district -- people know that,” says Lund. “As long as the this overdraft continues, the level of water in the in the valley will continue to drop. As long as this current level of pumping in excess of recharge continues, we can expect subsidence to continue and earth fissures to continue to form.”

The state owns all of Utah's water, and it has granted more rights to water than there is actual water to fulfill them. Meanwhile, there’s just one person tasked with enforcing all of those rights.

Eubanks is painfully aware of the consequences. He declared bankruptcy in 2014. He's still facing years of paying off the settlement.

“In summer 2012, at that point I reached the point of hopelessness,” he says.

“The fissure killed everything.”

“In summer 2012, at that point I reached the point of hopelessness. The fissure killed everything.”
~Jay Eubanks

Subsidence Fissures: a Growing Issue

Utah’s water-mining problems are not limited to that Enoch subdivision. Fissures began turning up at farms around Milford more than 40 years ago. They also appeared in the Escalante Valley southwest of Cedar City during the 2005 floods. Then sensing devices measured about a foot of displacement near Quitchapa Lake at the southwestern part of the Cedar Valley. Lund’s team even discovered a fissure crack under Interstate 15.

“Subsidence and earth fissures have come to Utah,” says Lund. “There's no doubt about it. The water table in the valley now is dropping about two feet a year. If it continues to drop at two feet a year and nothing is done about it, then we're gonna start looking like Nevada and California and Arizona before long.

In those places, subsidence and fissures have ruined subdivisions, highways and canals.

“The lessons from our surrounding states are that this can be a serious problem.” Lund says. “Are we there? No. We're not anywhere near that problem. But the signs are here. The canary in the coal mine is here, and our opportunities are now to start dealing with these problems to make sure that we don't repeat the lessons, the hard lessons from some of our surrounding states.”

The Science of Subsidence

When groundwater is mined, or pumped out through wells, the land above it collapses down. This graphic, from the United States Geological Survey written by Devin L. Galloway, David R. Jones, and S.E. Ingebritsen in 1999 describes the process. For their full report click here.