Here at milepost 80 in Enoch on 1-15 state geologists are inspecting a sinkhole on the right of way. They first spotted this jagged crack last year in images from a remote sensing survey.
“Yeah. You’re right,” says Bill Lund, senior scientist for the Utah Geological survey, speaking to a colleague. “There could be some displacement going on. And it looks like the prairie dogs have found it.”
This fissure, as it’s called, runs underneath the highway, and the geologists worry that it could grow deep and wide enough someday to rupture the interstate.
The Iron County city of Enoch called his geological hazards team a few years ago to check out what they thought was an earthquake fault in a new subdivision not too far from I-15. Cracks riddled the sidewalks and pavement. Lund knew right away the problem he was looking at was no earthquake. It's a manmade hazard, a fissure.
"Well, what's happening in this particular subdivision is that the aquifer, the groundwater resource in this valley, is being pumped at a greater rate than it's being recharged,” says Lund.
“And as the water table has dropped and de-watered, the aquifer has started to settle and compact, and that compaction has now made it all the way to the surface of the valley. So, the ground is cracking, and the surface of the of the valley is settling."
"Subsidence" like this and fissures like these have ruined roadways, railroads and neighborhoods throughout the arid West. California, Arizona and Nevada have spent hundreds of millions of dollars dealing with the damage.
It’s a worrisome sign of trouble in the aquifer here, a vast underground reservoir that makes life possible in the dry West. It supplies most of the water to Utah’s homes and businesses, power plants and farms, and it keeps the environment healthy.
Lund says farmers and water companies are pumping so much here, the water table is dropping two feet a year. Lund says the science is clear. He calls the fissures and subsidence “harbingers.”
“Well I think the principle lesson to learn,” says Lund, “is that it can become very expensive if it's allowed to go to the extremes that it's gone to in other states.”
The development in Enoch that turned Lund’s team into fissure detectives is as lonely as a graveyard now. Its one and only house is boarded up. That makes Jay Eubanks the fissure’s surviving victim. He’d built the house as an investment with his family’s savings just months before Lund told the city building officials about the fissure.
"The inspector told me about it, and I said, ‘What are you -- what are you talking about?’ ‘You haven't seen the sinkhole?’ ‘No.’ ‘You haven't seen the fissure where the road's broken up?’ ‘No.’"
Eubanks lives 0utside of Iron County, so it wasn’t until he visited the development that he saw a long crack tearing through the road, curbs and gutters. The subsidence even reversed the sewer line, and the city denied an occupancy permit. By 2012, Eubanks had run out of hope.
"I exhausted every avenue I could think of getting the house finished,” says Eubanks. “I had already lost out of pocket $108,000. I had no savings, credit card was filled up to the limit. And I had no way to continue making payments on the property."
Water mining and over-appropriation are not limited to a single person or place in Utah. The state has tens of thousands of water rights files and just one person to enforce them all.
Water insiders may praise the state’s approach. But some policy changes are already underway, like the 90-year plan to end water mining by farmers in the Escalante Valley, west of Cedar City.
Water lawyer Jody Williams says overusing groundwater is a statewide problem -- not just central Utah’s.
"I think our state regulators are going to be more watchful because of these subsidence issues in the future,” she says, “not letting water users take more pump more water out than can be safely replenished. I mean that's the safe yield."
The Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is scrambling for solutions to this big and expensive problem. After pulling out of the Lake Powell Pipeline a few years ago, it’s secured rights to Beaver County water. But plans to pipe it into the Cedar Valley face legal and environmental hurdles – and a $150 million price tag.
Paul Monroe says his challenge as the district’s general manager is helping people grasp what's at stake.
"I think the big issue here is realizing what kind of harm is being done to the aquifer,” he says, “and are we willing to pay the price to overcome the deficit and to supply water in the future?”
Meanwhile, that subdivision fissure in Enoch keeps growing. It’s 8 miles long now, and the difference between the crack’s edge and the land surface is nearly 3 feet on one end.
For Eubanks, this policy snag is painfully personal. The bank took the house. The county took the land. And this LDS bishop faces years of bankruptcy payments. His family has given up even the smallest of luxuries. They used to enjoy being Secret Santa, but now they get holiday gifts from someone else. Many unlucky breaks plague his investment story, but Eubanks mostly blames the sinking and cracking ground.
"Because people were taking more water than they were allotted, the fissure has grown, and no one was willing to enforce any laws to stop everyone from taking more water, he says."
"So the fissure killed everything."
Sprinklers near Milepost 80 keep the corn and alfalfa green, but Nature can’t keep up with the 1 million acre feet of water Utahns pump from the ground here each year. That means Utah's drought underground has become far worse than the dry landscape we can see. And there’s no end in sight.