Deeply Talks: Groundwater Banking Potential

In the latest Deeply Talks, we talk with experts about the increasing importance of groundwater in California and the role of on-farm groundwater recharge.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Groundwater recharging ponds along the Russian River.George Rose/Getty Images

In this episode of Deeply Talks, Tara Lohan, Water Deeply’s managing editor, speaks with Philip Bachand, a water engineer and founder of the environmental engineering firm, Bachand & Associates; Daniel Mountjoy, the director of resource stewardship at Sustainable Conservation; and Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch, about recharging groundwater and the crucial role that farms can play in this important effort.

When California takes stock of its water resources, the amount contained in Sierra Nevada snowpack is easy to see and quantify. But many areas of the state are also reliant on underground aquifers, which have become critically overdrafted in places, especially where there is intensive farming. As temperatures rise with climate change and droughts become more extreme, overdrafts will likely increase. But the state’s groundwater is limited, and now many farmers are beginning to realize that they can play a pivotal role in restoring the water source right beneath their fields.

Cameron has been a pioneer in the agricultural community when it comes to on-farm recharge, partnering with Bachand and Sustainable Conservation on a project that began in 2011, after experimenting with recharge on his farm for years.

He flooded his vineyards, despite concerns that too much water would harm the crops, and let the water soak into the earth. The grapes, Cameron says, were fine. “We proved the concept of the idea that we could flood growing crops and not kill them, and put a lot of water into the ground to bring the aquifer back,” he says.

Still, many farmers are hesitant to flood their fields. That is changing though, according to Cameron, with the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, which will require overdrafted basins to be more sustainably managed.

“All of a sudden the growers started to understand what SGMA meant at the grower level, and what that meant was that in the future they may not be able to farm all of their land,” says Cameron. “They’re definitely not going to be able to pump all of the water that they’ve been pumping in the past, and to mitigate that, they’re going to have to do groundwater recharge.”

Now, some farmers are going even further and helping research how to do groundwater recharge most effectively. Mountjoy says that there are still a lot of questions around how recharge should be done around the state and how much water is too much depending on the crop. So he is working with a small group of farmers to test how much water crops like almonds, cashews and pistachios, can take. There is a chance that the crops can be harmed or get a fungus, says Mountjoy, but the farmers involved are willing to take that risk.

“At this point, the growers that have been participating rank the benefit ahead of any potential risk, because water supply in dry years – they’re dependent on it from the ground, and if it’s not being replenished, than that is a much greater risk than possibly some short-term health issues,” says Mountjoy.

And the need for this kind of research will likely be important in the very near future. This year, the mountain snowpack is abnormally low, which means that many farmers will be dependent on groundwater to make up the difference. Many of them may need to prepare for that to be the new normal. This year, Bachand says, has “really driven home the point that climate change is here in California.”

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