Farmers recharging their groundwater may be able to benefit from their banked supplies during periods of drought, but the process isn't cheap or easy, according to a panel of farmers and experts at this year's Agri-Pulse Food and Ag Issues Summit in Sacramento. 

California grower Stuart Woolf, also the vice chair of Western Growers, is one of the farmers buying water to recharge his aquifers; Woolf hopes to recharge around 25,000 acre-feet this year.

Stuart WoolfCalifornia grower Stuart Woolf

But the costs of groundwater recharge can add up, he says. Growers often not only need to buy the water, but also flood their fields with it and bear the costs of cleaning up the weeds that spring up due to the extra moisture. These costs may dissuade other farmers from attempting recharge on their own, Woolf said.

“There's a lot of money that goes into just putting the water in the ground,” he said.

Woolf also said setting statewide targets for storage during flood years may help build storage across different parts of California. 

“I'm not convinced we have a target statewide as to how much we're trying to get in. If we did and we were measuring it, I think we could manage it,” Woolf said. 

Don Cameron, the president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, said capturing floodwater is especially important to keep up with California's drought cycle. He said farmers have two ways to control their aquifers: bring in flood water when it's available or reduce demand; doing the latter often results in the need to fallow fields, Cameron said.

“Those are your two choices — you're either going to idle farmland or you're going to find some water, and finding water in California is a very difficult task,” Cameron said. “That's why floodwater is key.” 

Cameron and Woolf both said more research is needed on recharging and its methods. They pointed to a litany of unanswered questions as producers work to better understand the practice, including how long to leave land flooded and the impact on biodiversity and soil health.

“We're kind of playing it along as we go,” Woolf said.

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They said producers will also need more clarity on permitting and water access issues going forward if they are to pursue groundwater recharge on their operations.

Cameron, regarded as a leader on recharge efforts in the state for the work on his operation, said the potential for groundwater storage in California is “huge.” He said over 2 million acre-feet of water could be stored within 120,000 acres of land within his local groundwater sustainability agency. But farmers, he said, will need a way to move floodwater to the location they need or it could be lost.

“I look back at the '50s and '60s and what California did as far as reservoir building, infrastructure, canals. I think we need another push like that for groundwater recharge and to store water underground,” Cameron said.

When asked whether such a movement is politically feasible, Daniel Mountjoy, director of resource stewardship at Sustainable Conservation, said groundwater storage is more politically feasible than more surface water storage. He said there is three times the amount of space underground in the Central Valley than in all of its surface water reservoirs.

“We need to figure out how to get the water to those places,” Mountjoy said. “We can triple our storage capacity with some fairly limited infrastructure investment.”

But, Mountjoy noted, “we have to demonstrate we're meeting the environmental needs as well. Those two go hand-in-hand.”

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