Home Business Arid California missed a chance to keep more rain underground

Arid California missed a chance to keep more rain underground

by SuperiorInvest

It sounds like an obvious fix to California’s flood-drought cycles: Capture water from downpours for use during dry periods.

Drain it from flooded rivers and spread it on fields or sand pans, where it can soak into the ground and replenish the region’s vast, severely depleted aquifers. The most spacious place for water storage in the state is not in its reservoirs or on top of mountains like snow, but underground, compressed between soil particles.

Yet not even this winter, when the sky brought an amount of water that could not be seen half a decadegreat quantities rushed down the rivers and out into the ocean.

Water agencies and experts say California’s bureaucracy is increasingly to blame — the state tightly regulates who gets to take water from creeks and streams to protect the rights of people downstream, and its rules aren’t adjusted nimbly even as storms bring a flurry of new . DELIVERIES ONLY.

During last month’s heavy storms, some watersheds were given the green light by the state to withdraw floodwaters only after the rains ended, allowing them to pump for just a few days. Others were unable to take any at all because floods washed away their gear.

In the wine region of Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, a group of vineyards and local agencies are working with the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians on a multimillion-dollar system of pumps and pipes that could capture large gulps of the Russian River during storms and distribute it to growers’ fields. The challenge, said Philip Bachand, the project’s engineer, will convince California water officials, who he says are too concerned that allowing people to divert floodwater will harm others downstream.

“We’re past the point where you can just play around,” Mr. Bachand said. As climate change strains water supplies already depleted after decades of overuse, “I really think the sky is falling,” he said. “And at some point you have to be prepared for it to hit the ground running.

Erik Ekdahl, deputy director in the water rights division at California’s water rights regulator, the State Water Resources Control Board, acknowledged the challenges of local agencies. The board has been working to streamline its procedures, he said, but the state’s century-old water rights system generally protects existing rights holders from new water claims.

“We’re in many ways — I don’t want to say we’re stuck — but we have to follow state law,” Mr. Ekdahl said. It’s up to the California Legislature, he said, to decide whether the system still works well in the era of climate change.

The trillions of gallons of water that fell over California this winter broke the state’s driest three-year stretch on record. But they hardly guaranteed him an easy ride next time there is little precipitation.

While the state giant tanks and towering piles of snow Getting more attention in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California’s underground aquifers can hold far more water—eight to 12 times more than all of the state’s major reservoirs combined. Gravity and chance have helped some of the recent rain seep into aquifers, but people must direct more of it there if the state hopes to settle enough for a prolonged drought.

In the Central Valley, the fruit and vegetable heart of California, underground water supplies have fallen and fallen it has recovered only slightly during the occasional wet spell in the last two decades. The feverish pace at which the cultivators drew water from beneath their feet caused the land surface to sink a foot a year in parts of the valley.

California hopes that rainwater harvesting can help.

Legislation passed in 2014 requires watersheds to stop pumping their aquifers by the 1940s. AND Governor Gavin Newsom it wants local agencies to build infrastructure projects that can capture and store 500,000 acre-feet of water on average each year. An acre foot is the amount needed to cover an acre of land in a foot of water, roughly what two typical households use annually. The Central Valley has been losing two million acre-feet of groundwater annually since 2003.

“The need and desire out there is huge,” said Paul Gosselin, deputy director for sustainable groundwater management at the California Department of Water Resources.

Even in this wet winter, however, the pilot projects approved by the state were only able to capture a trickle of their potential.

Landowners and irrigation districts who do not already have water rights to a particular stream require prior permission from the State Water Board to take and store water from it — even when storms fill them with too much to handle.

The permitting process is designed to ensure that takers do not interfere with other people’s water rights or harm fish and natural habitat. There are meetings and consultations to clarify the details and a public comment period to hear objections. The whole process can take months. And the resulting permit allows the holder to divert water only temporarily, usually for 180 days, and only when specific hydrological conditions are met.

Some water management agencies claim that the State Water Management Authority makes these conditions unreasonably strict out of respect for downstream water users. Retrieving and storing floodwater requires pumps, canals and, in some cases, wells that inject water deep into the ground. If permit holders are only allowed to collect water when the river level is extremely high, building the infrastructure to handle that amount of water can be expensive. And if such torrential currents appear only once every four or five years, for a few days each time, the investment may not be worth it.

Another complaint: The process is too slow and cumbersome to help stem major floods that come, like this winter, out of the blue.

The Omochumne-Hartnell Water District, which operates a stretch of the Cosumnes River near Sacramento, applied for the permit last August. When the storms rolled in in December, his request was still pending.

“It was frustrating,” said Michael Wackman, the district’s CEO. He and his colleagues called the State Water Management Authority: “What’s going on there?” Let’s get these things moving.”

His permit finally came out on Jan. 11, more than a week after the swollen Cosumnes broke through nearby levees, killing at least two people. By then, the river was roaring with so much water that it damaged the pumps meant to send it away, Mr. Wackman said.

The Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, northwest of Sacramento, received the permit on Jan. 23, less than three weeks after the application was filed. That allowed the district to capture water for just a few days before flows from the local Cache Creek narrowed, said Kristin Sicke, the district’s general manager.

Mr Ekdahl, the State Water Authority official, said it was up to the applicant, not the council, to apply for a permit to recharge aquifers well in advance of the rainy season and with adequate infrastructure to capture the water.

Still, the council will continue to work with counties to help them use flood flows legally, he said. Stormwater is essentially the only kind in the state that hasn’t yet been claimed for one purpose or another, he said. “That’s really what’s left in California.”

The Merced Irrigation District received a recharge permit last month only after storms had already flooded the area around Mariposa Creek near the city of Merced, making it impossible to place pumps along the banks to draw water, said Hicham ElTal, the district’s deputy general manager. . Still, just getting the permit, the district’s first, counts as progress, he said. “We wanted to start with baby steps.”

Mr. Bachand, an engineer working on a recharge project in Sonoma County, said he doesn’t believe in baby steps. He hopes to convince the State Water Board to let the project take far more water from the Russian River than it would normally allow. He knows he has a fight ahead of him.

“These districts that start small never get there,” Mr. Bachand said. “And their farmers go out of business.

The McMullin Groundwater Sustainability Agency, near Fresno, first applied for a recharge permit in August 2021. The state board denied its request the following March, after the rainy season had mostly passed. The council said the agency did not provide enough information to demonstrate that its action would not harm other water users.

Matt Hurley, the agency’s CEO, said California has been stuck in a formula for more than 70 years. After every flood, he declares his worries about water over. After each drought, they wonder why the chance to retain more water was missed.

“We can no longer miss it; we just can’t,” he said. “There are too many human lives and treasures at stake.

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