Almond Board of California — Ensuring there is enough water from surface and underground supplies to meet all the state’s demands is a complicated and often controversial task. As author Mark Twain famously said, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”
Groundwater usage and potential recharge opportunities are huge points of discussion in the California agricultural industry, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. Approximately 2 million acre-feet more groundwater is pumped in this valley each year than is replenished to provide drinking water for people and nourishment for an enormous variety of annual and perennial crops, including almond trees.
In 2014, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), setting deadlines for sustainability in many almond-growing regions by 2040. The act mandated the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to oversee management and recharge efforts in specific local groundwater basins.
Recharge is one of the primary methods to replenish groundwater basins on the supply side of the equation, which is why it again will be the focus of a session at The Almond Conference. This session will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 10 a.m. PT.
The session will feature three experts on water issues in California:
- Stacey Sullivan, policy director for Sustainable Conservation. Sullivan will discuss state water policies that affect recharge, such as water rights.
- Scott Hamilton, a consultant for San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint. Hamilton will discuss infrastructure and conveyance as part of recharge efforts, including the availability of canals and pipelines to move water as well as who is responsible to pay for said infrastructure.
- Laura Ramos, program manager at the California Water Institute at California State University, Fresno. Ramos will focus on how recharge efforts – including those undertaken by the ag industry – can improve drinking water supplies, particularly for those in more disadvantaged areas of the San Joaquin Valley.
Session explores options for recharge
Recharge is a serious topic for almond growers, many of whom rely on pumping to augment whatever surface water allocations they receive each year.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, intentional groundwater recharge efforts could fill about 25% of the gap between current supply and demand for groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley, putting up to 500,000 acre-feet of water back into aquifers each year. Without mitigation, the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint estimates as many as 1 million acres in ag production today could be fallowed in years to come.
There are several options for growers who want to try groundwater recharge. The simplest method involves using existing flood irrigation systems in the dormant season, when there is excess available water that can percolate down and replenish the aquifer. If a flood irrigation system isn’t available, the soil doesn’t drain well, or other obstacles stand in the way, growers can consider:
- installing a groundwater recharge pond on their property outside the orchard,
- fallowing an area within in the orchard that is best suited for recharge in order to develop a pond (sandy areas are optimal), or
- working with a GSA to develop recharge projects elsewhere in one’s basin.
Jesse Roseman, principal analyst for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs at the Almond Board of California (ABC), will moderate the session. His hope is that the discussion spurs growers to “think through the factors involved in recharge to better understand if this practice is right for their orchards.”
Though many of SGMA’s potential restrictions on groundwater pumping won’t take effect for many years, the possibility of consecutive years of below-average rainfall and snowfall years always threatens growers’ access to surface water – and puts pressure on aquifers.
“Some counties have already tightened up on approving new wells,” Roseman said. “If we have below-average rainfall again this year, reservoirs will be drawn down, impacting surface water allocations.”
Groundwater guide supports grower decisions
Beyond the session on recharge, the Almond Board of California (ABC) and Sustainable Conservation are collaborating on a Groundwater Recharge Guide that will be published in early 2021 and distributed via an Industry Roadshow. As part of this roadshow, ABC’s Field Outreach and Education team, along with other staff, will travel throughout the growing region of the Central Valley to meet with industry members and distribute content that would have typically been provided at an in-person Almond Conference. Stops along the roadshow will include locations in your area, including coffee shops, Farm Bureau offices and other places that people can safely gather during the pandemic.
“The document will give growers a starting point to learn about recharge and how it might not only fit into their farming operation, but also help achieve basinwide sustainability,” Roseman said. “Recharge won’t be an option on every farm or even in every basin, but we want to provide guidance based on research, informing growers on what questions to ask before they try it out.”
Mark your calendar for Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 10 a.m. to attend the session on groundwater recharge, and check out The Almond Conference 2020 webpage for the event’s complete agenda. As a reminder, The Almond Conference 2020 will be held completely virtually.