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This week’s CDFA-sponsored public forum: Scaling-up groundwater recharge big time

The 2014 passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) by the legislature was a game changer for California agriculture, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. This law requires every area of the state to develop and implement a groundwater management plan that assures the stabilization of groundwater levels in their area. This means that areas pumping more water out of the ground than is recharged will have to change their ways. The law requires that Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) be established in every groundwater basin in the State, with responsibility of developing and implementing the groundwater management plans. The GSAs have been created. Now the hard work of identifying how much pumping is sustainable and who gets to do it is beginning.

In many areas, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, the numbers are bleak. According to a Public Policy Institute of California study, between 2006 and 2016, the average annual overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley was 2.4 million acre-feet. If the only strategy to eliminate overdraft is to limit pumping to current water recharge levels in the groundwater basins, then many farmers will not have enough water to actually farm all their land. In addition to hurting the farmer, any significant reduction in agriculture production has real economic and social impacts on the surrounding communities. Therefore, relying on demand management alone as a strategy to stop overdraft has very negative consequences to producers and the public at large.

A public forum this week sponsored by the California Department of Food and Agriculture brought together many different stakeholders: Farmers, regulators, state and federal agencies, academics, non-profits, lawyers, trade groups and business people. The purpose was to learn and brainstorm about how to maximize the amount of water that can be captured and recharged into the groundwater aquifers.

The major untapped source of potential surplus water that could be available for supplemental recharge are peak flows generated from time to time when atmospheric rivers dump massive amounts of rain and snow on California. The California Department of Water Resources estimates under current diversion capacities and river flow regulations that as much as 1.5 million acre-feet of water in those years could be available for supplemental groundwater recharge. But in addition to this, millions of acre feet of water could be captured without adverse impacts to the environment IF the infrastructure existed to take the peak flows from these events and the locations existed that could receive these flows and percolate them into the groundwater basins.

In order to accomplish the goal of scaling up the infrastructure to capture these massive flows, there are a variety of challenges that must be overcome. They include the conveyance facilities to deliver water to actual locations where it could be percolated into the ground. Secondly, those locations need to be identified. Percolation basins work the best; however, they are expensive to build and maintain, particularly since in many years there is no water to put in them. But as we discovered this past winter, existing farms, vineyards and orchards can also serve as recharge sites.

There is much research needed to determine the impact of spreading significant flood waters on cropland, vines and trees. Soil type makes a big difference. One of the speakers at the forum was from the Almond Board of California (ABC). She said that there are now 1 million acres of almonds in California and ABC’s preliminary estimate is that about 600,000 of those acres might be suitable for recharge opportunities, but more specific research needs to be done. In fact, aerial electromagnetic mapping has started this week in the eastern part of the San Joaquin Valley near the foothills to identify soil types and locations that could be potential recharge locations.

Other challenges include regulatory permits to allow for diversions. The State Water Resources Control Board, which issues those permits, was at the forum talking about a streamlined permit process as well as more of an umbrella permit covering a region that would allow more flexibility in diversion and site of use permits. Obviously, there is a regulatory process that can either hinder or help facilitate the goal.

Then there is the issue of how do you finance these projects from planning all the way to implementation and operation. How is the water quantified and accounted for? What are the legal impediments? How do you incentivize people to actually do these projects? Who is going to operate them?

The forum had people who raised these questions as well as folks who proposed possible solutions. What was clear is that the state agencies are very eager to advance the goal of facilitating a massive scale-up of groundwater recharge in California. But they believe that these efforts will only be successful if local communities initiate the projects. Several times in the forum, speakers implored communities to “bring your projects forward,” “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and “get started and we can adjust as we go.” The GSAs, which are locally controlled, were identified as a great vehicle to facilitate the development of these efforts.

Many of our dairies are located in heavily over-drafted parts of the San Joaquin Valley. So, this problem is very real to us. It was encouraging to see the level of energy and passion present at the forum for actually doing something big to make a difference.

Many thanks to California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and the State Board of Food and Agriculture for sponsoring the forum. Various reports and action plans are being prepared to address this issue, but the primary spark that will ignite actual progress on the ground must come from us at the local level.

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs

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