Lawmakers are angry over pumping restrictions that have stymied hopes for capturing a deluge of floodwater running out to the ocean this month. To change that narrative, California resource secretaries have been traveling to drought-stricken regions to tout state investments in groundwater banking projects.

While California has made significant strides in recharging aquifers since the previous drought, the massive opportunity for storing water underground is still in the early stages. Farmers are frustrated over the pace for permitting these projects and for approving new above-ground storage projects.

Touring an almond orchard last week, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross described the “huge” potential for storing flood flows through on-farm recharge.

“If we can take it off at the right time and the right amount,” said Ross, “this will go on practically every farm up and down the Central Valley.”

California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Chuck Bonham was just as thrilled about the idea of recharge.

“Just think about the word itself: recharge, recharge,” said Bonham, grinning. “It’s building something back. It’s bringing ourselves up to a level of sustainability. It’s the ability to start again with purposeful action. Recharge.”

He envisions deploying recharge to reconnect rivers to their historic floodplains—which was disrupted by the development of the West.

Referring to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Water Supply Strategy released last August, California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot touted recharge as “a critical component of our water strategy moving forward to adjust to climate change.”

The policy blueprint calls for expanding recharge by at least 500,000 acre-feet every year. The Department of Water Resources (DWR) estimates California contains as much as four million acre-feet of capacity for recharge. During the wet winters of 2017 and 2019, more than that much water percolated into Central Valley aquifers naturally, according to an analysis by the State Water Resources Control Board. Factoring in all groundwater basins, DWR calculates the state has up to 12 times the capacity of its existing surface water storage.

Jeanine-Jones-sq.jpgDWR Drought Manager Jeanine Jones

Fully leveraging this underground resource would build long-term water resilience and mitigate future drought impacts. Crowfoot explained that under climate change scenarios, an increasing amount of California’s precipitation will come in big winter storms that deliver excess flows into rivers and reservoirs, and “we have to be able to capture these flood flows for use in dry times.”

According to Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University and the controversial former state water board chair, the “biggest bang for the buck” is groundwater storage. The overdrafted basins are the only thing that can approximate the size of the snowpack, she told the Regional Water Authority in a webinar last week.

Under its Flood-Managed Aquifer Recharge (Flood-MAR) Program, DWR is investing in new weather forecasting tools to plan ahead for atmospheric rivers, which will facilitate recharge as a short-term strategy.

“That will at least buy us some time, in terms of the longer-term investments needed to transform some of the existing Sierra and Cascades water infrastructure to be able to handle what we’re seeing with climate change,” said Jeanine Jones.

As DWR’s drought manager, Jones updated the California Water Commission last week on the state’s plans for the increasingly dry years ahead.

Groundwater already accounts for up to 60% of the state’s total water supply during dry conditions. Groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) are hoping to rapidly expand that and have proposed more than 340 new recharge projects in their implementation plans for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The State Water Resources Control Board has so far provided $1 billion in assistance to 13 projects, representing a total capacity of recharging 88,000 acre-feet per year. The administration initially hoped to maintain $350 million in funding for the next fiscal year, though an economic downturn has left future spending commitments in doubt. Most of the funding for groundwater recharge projects, however, typically comes from the local level—as with water infrastructure investments in general, according to water policy experts.

DWR has partnered with the state water board to streamline and expedite the permitting process for capturing floodwater for underground storage. Standard water right permits take several years to process due to the legal requirements, according to board staff.

In 2020 the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 638 authorizing 180-day permits, which the board processes in three to four months. The legislation also created five-year permits, which take the board about a year to approve. Public notice requirements, an objection review period and consultation with CDFW take up the bulk of the processing time. During the previous drought in 2015, the board began redirecting staff to the permit program, while lowering fees and streamlining approval timelines.

The expedited process enabled the board earlier this month to approve a six-month permit for landowners in Merced County to divert excess flows from the Mariposa Creek. The permit allows the county, in coordination with the local GSA and the Merced Irrigation District, to divert up to 10,000 acre-feet during high flows and spread that water onto agricultural fields, replenishing a critically overdrafted basin and stalling further subsidence in the area.

The board then approved a permit for the Omochumne-Hartnell Water District to divert a much smaller 2,444 acre-feet from the Cosumnes River in Sacramento County. The water will seep into an aquifer beneath two dormant vineyards, making it available for pumping through the 2027 irrigation season.

The Cosumnes River floodplain gained national attention earlier this month, when a devastating flood left ranches inundated and two people dead following multiple levee breaks. The recharge projects offer hope for preventing such disasters during the next wet winter, since spreading the floodwater across the basin would ease pressure on the levee system.

The same floodplain is the site of a much larger recharge project under consideration at the California Water Commission. The Harvest Water Program would store about 370,000 acre-feet over the life of the project and irrigate up to 16,000 acres of farmland. It stands to gain nearly $300 million in funding from the 2014 Proposition 1 ballot measure, and the commission expects to greenlight the project by the end of 2023.

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Streamlining the bureaucratic process for permitting more flood flow diversions has put a significant workload on state water board staff. Board chair Joaquin Esquivel explained that “the review process for these permits is complex and must consider impacts to the environment and existing water rights, including those dependent on specific [Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta] conditions and state and federal water project requirements.”

The board has approved 20 such permits since 2016, with five more applications pending.

The Newsom administration’s promotional campaign with recharge launched in the wake of outcry over Delta pumping operations from several San Joaquin Valley lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and in both Congress and the Legislature. They blasted the Newsom administration for letting a deluge of stormwater release into the ocean while the massive intakes for state and federal water projects were nearly idle.

Meteorologists and water managers fear the recent stream of atmospheric rivers could be the last major precipitation event and that the precipitation now collecting in reservoirs or stored as snowpack could disappear under a warming and increasingly erratic climate. This adds more pressure for California to rapidly expand its water supply portfolio.

“I know there has been a lot of interest, maybe some finger pointing,” said Esquivel at a board hearing last week. “It’s important to remember we’re only limited by the number of applications that are actually at our door.”

He pointed out that diverting flows when a river is at flood stage does not require a permit.

“There’s a ton of recharge that does go on,” added Erik Ekdahl, a deputy director at the board, referring to recharge efforts underway through existing water rights.

The state, however, does not have a mechanism for tracking all the groundwater recharge projects that have come online since the passage of SMGA, according to a DWR spokesperson.

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