Floodwaters to replenish states underground reservoirs

Gov. Gavin Newsom signs executive order to allow local water districts to use recent deluge to recharged groundwater

CALIFORNIA – As storms continue to flow through the Central Valley, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to make it easier to capture rainfall and snowmelt to recharge underground reservoirs.

Newsom signed the executive order, on March 10, specifically to lift regulations for local water agencies to capture water and recharge the state’s groundwater supply. This comes after a series of storms swept through Tulare County this year, bringing both heavy rain and snowpack that caused nothing short of a deluge. The order would temporarily lift the need for state permits that these water districts would originally have needed in order to collect floodwaters. Ryan Jacobsen, the Tulare County Farm Bureau CEO and president of the Fresno Irrigation District Board of Directors, said that this act could add more water into the groundwater system than the state has seen in years.

“We’re in historic times right now with the flows that we’ve seen, and are still going to see, over the course of the next weeks and months. This [order] is definitely helpful in trying to utilize flows and get [the flooding] out of the system to help alleviate some of the pressure we’re experiencing,” Jacobsen said.

Only two weeks into the new year, the Central Valley had already seen about 30-50% of its annual average rainfall. The National Weather Service has recorded 3.98 inches of rain at their co-op in Visalia, which is well over the monthly average of .91 inches. With that amount of rain, heavy winds, tornado warnings, evacuation notices and damages, the county declared a state of emergency on Tuesday Jan. 10. The day before, Kaweah River reported the most water intake in the past 16 years.

“California is seeing extreme rain and snow, so we’re making it simple to redirect water to recharge groundwater basins. This order helps us take advantage of expected intense storms and increases state support for local stormwater capture efforts,” Newsom said in a statement.

The significant snowmelt runoff that these storms have created have already produced extreme flooding in many local cities, and as rising seasonal temperatures begin to hit, it will cause the snowpack to melt even more rapidly. However, Newsom stated that this also poses an opportunity in the form of groundwater recharge. The runoff can help mitigate ongoing drought impacts on depleted groundwater aquifers.

Newsom pushed for this order after years of proclaiming a state of emergency due to drought conditions, according to the order documents. Not only that, but this temporary lift of restrictions will help alleviate the effects of climate change, as well as the state’s abnormal wet and dry swings. Because of the uncertainty of water in the state, this order will help keep a water supply for the vulnerable communities and farmers that reside in the Valley.

In the past, Jacobsen said that most groundwater was accounted for since it was so scarce. So, this water would be divided up to certain districts, with very little left. This year is different, as there is water in the system that is above and beyond the needs of those entities that are contracted for water. This will allow for others who are not contracted for water to come in and use the flood water for groundwater as well, without having to go through the state for permission, which can at times take months.

“It’s a double edged sword. There are a lot of folks, unfortunately, that are underwater right now and can’t really do anything with this executive order. But for those that are able to put some of this water to benefit, it’s helping,” Jacobsen said.

The way groundwater is collected after a flood varies. Jacobsen said that in Fresno, they have invested in recharge basins. These recharge basins are able to divert water in the times that it’s available by percolating into the ground, meaning that it eventually makes its way down to the soil through time. Not all areas are able to absorb flood waters into underground basins in this way, since certain soils absorb water differently. There are also on-farm rechargers throughout the valley that will collect water during wet years.

“The great paradox of California is that just three months ago, we were talking about a fourth year of extreme drought. Now, we find ourselves with potentially one of the wettest years on record,” Jacobsen said. “They’ve been preparing for these higher flows during the drought, and they’re trying to do what they can to take advantage of it to save this rain for another day by getting it into the ground.”

Groundwater accounts for 41% of California’s total water supply on a yearly basis, but that can jump up to 58% in a critically dry year. Not only that, but roughly 85% of public water systems rely on groundwater as their primary supply. Groundwater basins are reservoirs that are underground, and they not only provide water for the valley during dry seasons, but they also feed into rivers and streams in ways that benefit natural wildlife and fish.  The order includes wildlife and habitat protections, ensuring that any diversions would not harm water quality or habitat or take away from environmental needs. These reservoirs are also extremely large. They currently hold 850 million acre-feet of water throughout California. This is far more than major reservoirs that are above ground, which hold 50 million acre-feet of storage capacity.

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