Those were the questions swirling around the Sacramento Convention Center as agricultural, environmental and regulatory professionals explored the subject at a public forum sponsored by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the State Board of Food and Agriculture.
"We know that we have an overdraft problem throughout California," said Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch in Fresno County and a Food and Agriculture board member. "Now, with sustainable groundwater management, we're going to have to address this. We have to have our plans in place by 2020."
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, enacted in 2014, mandates local agencies and groundwater users to come up with ways to manage aquifers within their jurisdictions. Plans for local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies were due in June.
California Farm Bureau Federation Associate Counsel Jack Rice, who participated in the forum, said groundwater recharge generally involves three basic types of activities:
- Groundwater banking, which moves surface water underground for specific users' later use, such as the Kern Water Bank;
- Groundwater replenishment, which uses various approaches to move surface water underground for the general benefit of a groundwater basin;
- Practices that slow the flow of water to increase percolation, using tools such as cover crops, swales, stockponds and floodplains.
Could this mean taking a back-to-the-future approach?
"When we used to flood-irrigate much of the San Joaquin Valley," Rice said, "we had adequate groundwater levels."
Conversion to more-precise irrigation methods have had an impact, he said.
"We went to microirrigation, so very little water goes below the root zone," Rice said, adding that installation of drip irrigation often meant removal of the canals and ditches used to distribute water for surface irrigation. "Now that we are looking for ways to divert high winter flows to areas where recharge can occur, this old infrastructure would be really helpful."
CFBF President Paul Wenger, who attended the forum, said farmers with generations of experience can be a valuable resource.
"We've been on the same ground for 106 years," said Wenger, a third-generation farmer near Modesto. "If you want to talk about a vision and what can be sustainable, then you come to farmers and ranchers who have been on this ground, who understand the idiosyncrasies of the microclimates and the situations they're in. They know the soil. They know the water."
Irrigation districts should be in the game as well, Cameron said.
"We have to measure the water we're bringing in so we can account for it, and we need to see if there's any effects that we're not expecting," he said.
At the heart of the forum, held earlier this month, was the question of whether groundwater recharge should be considered a beneficial use of water.
"Groundwater recharge is not considered a beneficial use in California and at the federal level," Cameron said. "We need to change that. What's more beneficial than rebuilding your water supply?"
Rice said broad agreement on the subject is still lacking because of concerns about permitting and potential impacts on other water users.
"Many people are discussing whether it would be possible for groundwater recharge to be considered a beneficial use if conducted in accordance with a groundwater sustainability plan," Rice said. "Though the details of permitting recharge projects are still being sorted out, many realize the importance of finding ways to make groundwater recharge simple and efficient."
Representatives of the state Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board indicated government agencies are working to streamline the permitting process.
Forum organizers said the event was intended to identify benefits, opportunities and barriers to groundwater recharge, and come up with ways to implement recharge projects.
Tim O'Halloran, general manager of the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, called the topic "complex."
"You have to approach it from a very long-term perspective," O'Halloran said. "It's not a matter of just opening the gate and letting the water flow. You have to have your water rights, your permits. You have to have your infrastructure set up so you can reach it during the winter."
The Yolo County district has had a temporary permit for high-water diversion from the State Water Resources Control Board for the past two years. That represents an additional water right, O'Halloran said, and is junior to all others.
"We haven't been able to bring in enough water to put it on farm fields; we just get enough to fill up our canal system," he said.
"I've had a lot of discussions with our farming community, our farmers, about what would work for them, and what wouldn't work," O'Halloran added. "There's no-one-size-fits-all for the farmers. Their participation will depend on their specific circumstances."
Cameron said doing nothing is not an option.
"The long-term benefit to this groundwater recharge is sustainability," Cameron said. "We know we're going to have more droughts. We just went through five years of drought followed by record rainfall. We're seeing more extremes in our weather here. To be resilient, and to continue to farm the land we're farming now, we need to rebuild our groundwater."
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Reprinted with permission: California Farm Bureau Federation