Along Highway 43
The land around Corcoran is tied to agriculture, and so is its economy.
The town is known as the home of a tough state prison that once housed Charles Manson. Corcoran rests alongside Highway 43, roughly 200 miles from both Los Angeles to the south and San Francisco to the north. Nearly 30 percent of the town’s working-age residents work in the farming industry, and more than 30 percent of residents live in poverty.
Several large agricultural operations surround Corcoran, including Sandridge Partners, the J.G. Boswell Company, Hansen Ranches, the Vander Eyk Dairies and many others. Collectively, they have hundreds of wells pulling water from beneath the flat, fertile fields around Corcoran.
How much underground water is being pumped by farming companies is nearly impossible to determine. California does not require that information to be disclosed.
Boswell is by far the most prominent agricultural operation in the area. The company started in Corcoran in 1921 and has grown into a $2 billion international enterprise. It has supplied steady work for generations of Kings County families and has been an integral part of the town’s identity, even helping to build the high school football stadium.
Boswell operates more wells in the area than most other ag companies, and far deeper ones. It owns 82 active wells around Corcoran, a majority of which plunge either 1,000 to 1,200 feet deep or 2,000 to 2,500 feet deep. The next largest nearby well owner, Vander Eyk Dairies, has 47 wells, only 10 of which are 1,000 feet deep or deeper.
Boswell’s status as one of the largest and deepest pumpers of groundwater in the Corcoran area — and its decision to sell off portions of its surface water — has raised questions about its role in Corcoran’s subsidence problems.
Some residents and local leaders said they believe that Boswell was leaning more heavily on groundwater for its crops because it had been selling surface water out of the area for substantial profits. In just two sales in 2015 and 2016, one Fresno County water district bought 43,000 acre-feet of Boswell water for $43.6 million.
“If you’re selling off your water, you’ve got no business farming with groundwater,” said Doug Verboon, a Kings County supervisor and farmer.
Others in the area say it is impossible to blame any one water user for Corcoran’s complicated and long-running history of sinkage.
“We’re all pumping,” said Gene Kilgore, the general manager of the Corcoran Irrigation District, which installed the lift stations and serves Boswell and other companies. “Every grower is pumping, every city is pumping, and we all play whatever part there is to subsidence.”
Local Boswell representatives said there was not enough data to know which water user had been pumping what amounts. All of the company’s surface water transfers and exchanges have been approved by state water regulators.
Boswell executives at the company’s headquarters in Pasadena did not respond to emails and calls seeking comment.
The owners of Sandridge Partners and Vander Eyk Dairies declined to comment. An executive with Hansen Ranches did not respond to requests for comment.