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Putting a Tempest into a Teapot: Can California Better Use Winter Storms to Refill its Aquifers?

Felicity Barringer
Jun 4 2019

With new rules coming into effect, farmers and municipalities using groundwater must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness an unconventional and unwieldy source of water: the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California.

A “groundwater replenishment facility” run by the Coachella Valley Water District, photographed in 2014.

A “groundwater replenishment facility” run by the Coachella Valley Water District, photographed in 2014. California Department of Water Resources
 

By Felicity Barringer

The general long-term forecast for California as climate change intensifies: more frequent droughts, intermittently interrupted by years when big storms bring rain more quickly than the water infrastructure can handle.

This bipolar weather will have profound implications for the state’s $50 billion agriculture industry and the elaborate network of reservoirs, canals, and aqueducts that store and distribute water. A system built for irrigation and flood protection must adapt to accommodate more conservation. “The effects of climate change are necessitating wholesale changes in how water is managed in California,” the state Department of Water Resources wrote in a June, 2018 white paper.

During droughts, farmers and municipalities pumped groundwater to augment sparse surface supplies. After nearly a century of heavy use, many aquifers are badly depleted. And California’s five-year-old law regulating groundwater basins is nearing a moment of truth: in 2020, sustainability plans are due from agencies managing critically depleted aquifers. They must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. The law – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA – is beginning to bite. A 2019 study from the Public Policy Institute of California predicted that at least 500,000 acres of farmland will eventually be idled.

Map: Groundwater overdraft in the San Joaquin Valley
Sources: PPIC (groundwater overdraft), California DWR (water district boundaries); Natural Earth Data;   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness an unconventional and unwieldy source of water: the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California. “We need to capture the atmospheric rivers,” said Tim Quinn, the former director of the Association of California Water Agencies. But, he added, “We don’t have the right conveyance facilities. There’s not enough storage to capture the atmospheric rivers.” Quinn wants to capture stormwater and divert it to aquatic “parking lots,” as he calls them, where water can trickle back into depleted aquifers. This serves several ends: restoring a depleted natural resource, reducing land subsidence and providing for future water supply.

After passage of the law, groups including state and local water agencies, nonprofits, farmers, and agricultural groups like the Almond Board, are pushing to increase opportunities for recharge. “SGMA is a huge driver,” said Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation, a nonprofit working with farmers and local water agencies around the state. “There is a much greater interest in recharge than there was pre-SGMA.”

In the Tulare basin in the south, irrigation districts have long directed water onto special fields designed to allow it to percolate swiftly down and recharge aquifers. Now, “instead of sticking with the original recharge plans, we are aggressively recharging,” said Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District. “If someone can point to a hole one foot by one foot by one foot, I’ll go and put water in it.”

“Instead of sticking with the original recharge plans, we are aggressively recharging. If someone can point to a hole one foot by one foot by one foot, I’ll go and put water in it.”

Boren’s colleague at Sustainable Conservation, Daniel Mountjoy, said more than 120 million acre-feet of groundwater “has been pumped out of California aquifers” in the Central Valley in the last 70 or 80 years. He added, “I think of it as a giant underground reservoir that has already been built.” If you think about the cost of building one reservoir” — and the cost of environmental permitting – “why would we do that when we have access to 120 million acre-feet of capacity?”

“If you think about the cost of building one reservoir, why would we do that when we have access to 120 million acre-feet of capacity?”

Making the Central Valley Flood Again

How to tap into the atmospheric rivers? Ask Don Cameron, of Helm, who manages the Terranova Farm on the North Fork of the Kings River. He has flooded his vineyards since 2011. He has invested $14 million – $5 million from a DWR grant and another $9 million from Terranova – in diversion structures that will increase the amount he can recharge into the Kings aquifer’s sub-basin from 14 cubic feet per second to 500 cfs, or 1,000 acre-feet per day. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons; average California households use up to an acre-foot a year.)

For 38 years, Cameron has managed the farm, which grows 25 different crops, from tomatoes and garlic to wine grapes and, most recently, almond trees. “I noticed some time ago that the water table was declining two feet a year,” he said. “We realized we needed to do something.” His initial efforts to build recharge infrastructure – a pipe, a canal, and a spot designated for recharge – expanded nine years ago when he got a $75,000 grant from the federal Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. This let him monitor “whether we could do groundwater recharge on working landscapes” – flooding his fields, both those fallowed and those where permanent crops, like grapevines, grew.

“We started flooding the wine grapes. We kept the water on from February to late June. The neighbors thought we were crazy, that we were ruining our grapes.” He wasn’t. Now he floods not only vineyards but nut trees. He works with DWR, promising to take excess water in flood years to prevent downstream flooding and has set aside 400 acres as a permanent recharge site and 1,200 acres more for seasonal recharge

Flooded wine grapes at Don Cameron's farm on the north fork of the Kings River.
Flooded wine grapes at Don Cameron's farm on the north fork of the Kings River   Terranova Farm

His new system includes a large structure with gates that open to let water out of the north fork of the Kings River to a canal and the large pumping station to extract the surface water from the canal, plus a structure with gates that open to let water out of four new 72-inch pipes and into a canal, headed for recharge areas. He expects to be able to recharge at a rate of 500 cubic feet per second, which would equal 1,000 acre-feet a day, into the depleted aquifer. “The storage capacity beneath our feet is between 2 and 3 million acre-feet,” he said. “We have huge potential under our feet.”

“The storage capacity beneath our feet is between 2 and 3 million acre-feet. We have huge potential under our feet.”

He’s not alone. Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, also wants to use flood irrigation to tap into atmospheric rivers; her district partners with another on a $2 million pilot project to recharge aquifers. Aaron Fukuda in Tulare helps operate a district using part of a $1.95 million federal grant to build a new recharge basin and study ways to expand existing recharge facilities. In the wet year of 2017, his district provided cheap water to farmers willing to put it back in the aquifer. But for an individual farmer, creating a recharge basin could be costly. Counting the price of land, engineering and excavation costs, a pipeline to move the water, and legal costs, a one-acre recharge project can cost $100,000, Fukuda estimates.

For agencies or individuals seeking to create new recharge basins, a new Stanford study offers a tool. The study, done by Rosemary Knight, an Earth Sciences professor, and a former Ph.D. student Ryan Smith — now an assistant professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology — can help those building recharge ponds avoid the problems that plague the delivery system of the Friant-Kern Canal. Over-pumping made the land below it subside, torquing the structure and reducing its capacity. The study shows how a combination of satellite and aerial remote sensing, which map the underground sand and clay layers, can be used to predict how recharge can reduce subsidence. Combining the data sources allows creation of maps of the link between recharge — or continued groundwater pumping — and subsidence.

Recharge operations are nothing new; dedicated basins have dotted the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley for years. Kern County’s Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District dates to 1959. Such operations helped raise the total of water recharged for the San Joaquin Valley to 6.5 million acre-feet in 2017 — a year, like the current one, soaked by atmospheric rivers. But the total amount of inflow to surface waters was closer to 30 million acre-feet, PPIC reported. While the volume of rain and the volume of recharge were exceptional, researchers say more recharge was possible. An annual average of about 500,000 acre-feet of recharge potential is available – about a quarter of the average annual groundwater deficit from over-pumping.

Volume of Groundwater Recharged in Surveyed Districts, 2017

Following the extremely wet winter of 2016-17, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) collected recharge statistics from 46 water districts in the San Joaquin Valley. They found that dedicated recharge basins stored the largest amount of water.

In Acre-Feet of Water

Source: Public Policy Institute of California

“It’s not about big infrastructure; it’s about big collaboration” among private, public and nonprofit interests.

The state Department of Water Resources has a program devoted to improving on-farm recharge called Flood Managed Aquifer Recharge, or FloodMAR. Kamyar Guivetchi at DWR said they are working with the Merced Irrigation District to find out how much water could be recharged on farmlands in the Merced River watershed. Beyond that, he said, “We want to broaden the footprint” of new projects. The obstacles he sees goes beyond infrastructure. “It’s not about big infrastructure; it’s about big collaboration” among private, public and nonprofit interests.

Buzz Thompson, a Stanford law professor, focuses on the problem of moving the water. “The bottom line is that in the really wet years, we do not have the ability to store all the water that is available,” he said. Legal obstacles include the 120-year-old system of established individual rights to specific quantities of water. These must be met before the excess can be taken for recharge. So must requirements for environmental water deliveries ensuring fish get enough water. Most problematic: “Right now the greatest amount of surface water is available north of the Bay Delta and some of the best storage sites are south of the Delta,” he said. As long as the Delta is a transportation bottleneck, that limits the amount that can be stored.”

A Hitch: Who Owns the Recharged Water?

One incentive nudging farmers to do recharge is the knowledge that in dry years they will have access to the water they deposited in wet years. Irrigation districts and groundwater sustainability agencies don’t have a common approach to the question of credit. “With SGMA, each agency is going to establish its own rules,” said Mountjoy of Sustainable Conservation. “Does it belong to the farmer or the irrigation district that has a right to send it to the farmer?”

One school of thought favors collective ownership. “The water district has a right to take that water – it remains the irrigation district’s, for the benefit of all users,” Mountjoy said. A second option is “give the farmer the right to capture it and sell it. … They paid to put it in the ground. It’s now theirs. They could pump it out of the ground in a dry year or sell it to a neighbor. You basically create a water market.”

Kern County’s Semitropic Water Storage District practices a variant of this. “Our farmers can bank” recharged water “under the district’s established program. They have a bank account for their use,” said Jason Gianquinto, the district’s general manager. “We haven’t decided if they can do anything other than keep it for their own use. I can’t say you can move water outside our district to another area.”

Another Tactic: Releasing Water from Reservoirs When a Storm Nears

One way to capture more of the atmospheric rivers is allowing dams to release reservoir water in anticipation of a storm. The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoirs, has strict rules on how much water must be held and when it can be released. Now the Corps is working with tools developed by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego that facilitate what are called Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations.

The Turlock Irrigation District uses the tools. “In 2017, when we had an excess amount of water, we were able to know what was coming. We could start making pre-flood releases,” said Josh Weimer, the district’s government affairs manager. The advance releases, some of which could be recharged, meant the 2017 flooding at its height was 25 percent of the flooding caused by similarly strong storms two decades earlier.

Across California’s farm country, the hard reality of a future without guaranteed access to groundwater is sinking in. Jerry Gragnani, a neighbor of Don Cameron’s who is 70 years old, recently sold 8,000 acres of his farm, keeping 3,000 acres for permanent crops like nut trees. “There’s no future without recharge,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a farmer around here that doesn’t realize that. We know if you don’t recharge the water, it’s going to run out. Once the aquifer is closed, it’s closed forever.” He added, “It’s a good time to get out.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

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...& the Best

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Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Madison Pobis, and Sierra Garcia

Articles Worth Reading: December 2, 2019

A Downward Trend for California’s Colorado River Water Consumption is shown by the most recent datasets. A favorable snowpack melt in the Sierras reduced the stress on Southern California water needs from the Colorado River. “Simply put, we are consistently using less water,” in spite of population growth, says Eric Kuhn, a retired general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. John Fleck/Inkstain

Idaho Fisheries Managers Predict Long-term Success for Sockeye Salmon despite a small percentage of recruits making it back to Snake River. Unusually high water temperatures and harsh transitions from soft to hard water led to low success in the past few years. New adjustments to the program and favorable conditions could mean much higher returns of salmon to the Sawtooth Basin in 2020 and 2021. Associated Press/Idaho Falls Post Register

The First Recording of a Blue Whale Heartbeat Suggests an Upper Limit for Animal Size. Researchers at Stanford University recovered the data from a monitor that the team attached to a blue whale with suction cups while it was surfacing between dives near Monterey, California. During dives up to 200 meters, the 220-ton whale’s heart rate can slow to as few as two beats per minute in order to conserve oxygen. Even after surfacing, their hearts likely can’t beat faster than 37 beats per minute, and this ability to bounce between such extremes is what helps such a massive animal dive so deep for food. If a deep-diving animal were any bigger, it’s likely the heart couldn’t beat fast enough to compensate for the oxygen lost during dives. The Atlantic

Lighthouse Relocation Stirs Up Tensions in a Coastal California Town. Eroding cliffs surrounding the original landmark prompted the community to move the local Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse. Some locals want to preserve the names of those buried or lost at sea, but native tribes are worried that a new location would disturb ancestral burial grounds and reinforce painful histories. Los Angeles Times

A Man Unearths His Ancestral History of the Crow Tribe in Yellowstone Valley by inviting tribal members to share stories and spending time in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. An archaeological excavation revealed the original foundations of a fort that had remained intact for more than 130 years. A new school curriculum centered on the fort and the history of the land has sparked new energy to honor the Apsalooke people and their traditions. Mountain Journal

Articles Worth Reading: November 18, 2019

Mining Expansion Poses Risks for a Colorado Tourist Destination. The town of Glenwood Springs relies on water flows from the Colorado River and subterranean heating to supply its popular hot springs. Denver-based mining company Rocky Mountain Resources acquired a nearby limestone quarry in 2016. Now the firm has proposed plans to expand from 20 acres to more than 450 over the next few decades. Several surrounding towns, including Glenwood Springs — a bedroom community for ski resorts — have passed resolutions opposing the expansion, citing impacts of dust, traffic, and impacts on water (read our recent report from Garfield County, Colorado). The Bureau of Land Management has not yet decided whether or not to allow it. The Denver Post

Caribou Take Home the Gold for Long-Distance Migrations. A recent study confirmed the widely cited evidence that caribou are the mammals that routinely make the longest migrations over land. Over the course of a year, caribou will travel as much as 840 miles. The New York Times

Bird Rehabilitators Seek to Ban Lead Ammunition after seeing the devastating impacts of lead toxicity in raptors like Wyoming’s golden eagles. Lead bullets shatter easily upon impact, which means that birds feeding on prey that have been shot can ingest the toxic substance and suffer severe impacts to the brain and nervous system. Many hunters are resistant to the transition because lead-free ammunition tends to be more expensive and less-suited to certain styles of hunting. WyoFile

Dry Lakes are Kicking Up Dust Throughout the West and prompting air quality officials to consider legal action. The Salton Sea in California’s Imperial County and the Utah Great Salt Lake are two of the largest contributors to dust in the wake of increasingly dry conditions. Dust in the air clogs lungs and airways and carries with it toxic compounds from agricultural sources. Bitterroot

Mountains Could Act as Batteries for Storing Gravitational Potential Energy according to new research. As western states work to meet their renewable energy goals, lithium-ion batteries often fall short when it comes to storing energy from solar or wind for more than a few hours. But by using a contraption similar to a ski lift to hoist sand up mountainsides, gravitational potential energy is stored and ready to generate electricity once the material falls down again. The system would increase the time and scale of energy storage while avoiding the drawbacks of hydropower storage, like evaporation. Utility Dive

Articles Worth Reading: November 5, 2019

Devastating Sea Urchin Invasion is Spreading to the Oregon Coast and wreaking havoc on abalone fisheries. Rapacious purple urchins have decimated California’s kelp ecosystems in recent years, and new estimates suggest that as many as 350 million of the spiny critters were latching onto a single Oregon reef — a 10,000 percent increase over the 2014 numbers. “You can't just go out and smash them. There's too many,” says Scott Groth, a shellfish scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Conservationists and other stakeholders are hoping to combat the issue by paying divers to remove the urchins by hand so they can be farmed for their meaty roe. Associated Press

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The Wild Population of California Condors is Well on its Way to Recovery. There are now more than 300 condors throughout the Southwest thanks to an aggressive breeding program and a ban on lead ammunition put into effect in July. Scientists are finding that an abundance of marine mammals contributes to healthier chicks. Soon the population will reach the goals originally set for the species in the 1996 plans Hakai

New Law Requires Texas Homeowners to Disclose Flooding Risk to potential buyers in the wake of damage from Hurricane Harvey. The new law means that buyers are more informed about flood history and risk, but properties in floodplain areas may have more difficulty selling. Surveys suggest that more than 74 percent of Americans are in favor of a disclosure law that can help buyers decide whether or not to purchase a home or seek flood insurance. NPR

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Articles Worth Reading: October 22, 2019

Greater-Sage Grouse Populations Stand a Better Chance, thanks to a new court ruling that found a lack of acceptable scientific support for the Trump administration’s rollback of protections on more than 9 million acres of the bird’s habitat in states like Wyoming and Oregon. The rollback in March was an effort to lease prime land for oil and gas drilling projects. This week’s court ruling, in which the judge wrote, “When the [Bureau of Land Management] substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification,” is a win for conservation groups suing to get the plans thrown out. The sage grouse has already lost some 90 percent of its historic numbers. Audubon

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Shellfish Farming Permit Thrown Out Due to Concerns for the Marine Environment in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge found the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t properly analyze the environmental impact of aquaculture farms. The industry takes in nearly $150 million per year in Washington state, the hub of shellfish aquaculture. Critics said the original permit doesn’t account for potential damage from microplastics, herbicides, and tideland conversion. The Seattle Times

Ecologists Lobby for Wildlife-Friendly Highway Crossings Along the Border With Mexico. Mexico’s Highway 2 intersects a wildlife corridor that could be used by populations of endangered species like jaguars, ocelots, and black bears traveling between Arizona and Sonora. Wildlands Network is pushing for additions to highway construction that would direct animals to safe crossings and maximize their chances of survival during dangerous travel. ASU Cronkite News/Arizona PBS

Wild Burros Aren’t All Bad for the Death Valley Ecosystem according to ongoing research. Yes, the donkeys compete for resources with the park’s native species, but they may also serve other beneficial purposes. By digging wells in dry streambeds, they create small water sources for insects and amphibians and help struggling tree species germinate. The default option is to round up and remove the burros, but there may be unintended consequences for the complex desert ecosystem. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: October 7, 2019

California Fisherman Are Repeatedly Catching and Releasing Protected Great White Sharks Without Consequences due to cloudy language in the law. Although state regulations strictly prohibit killing a Great White, it’s almost impossible to prosecute because anglers can claim the catches were accidental. Changing ocean conditions mean that more of the animals are sticking around in Southern California, spurring advocates to call for heftier penalties for illegal takes. Hakai Magazine

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