Building a Subterranean Savings Account to Weather Future Droughts

Our Golden State works hard for us. We depend on California’s land, air, and water for so much – our nourishment, our shelter, our inspiration.

California’s water in particular has been working overtime. The ongoing drought has depleted our most precious resource as we struggle to fill the thirsty gaps left in the wake of five parched years. We can’t live without water to hydrate us and grow our food, but how can we balance these needs when shortages loom large?

In 2015, Sustainable Conservation advanced an innovative answer to that tough question: focus on building an underground “savings account” to help California meet future droughts with less fear and a bigger nest egg. Sound clandestine? While the answer isn’t above ground, it couldn’t be more above board.

Long-term groundwater overdraft – where our precious subterranean water stores have been pumped beyond their means – and years of drought in the San Joaquin Valley threaten the reliability of drinking water for local communities and irrigation water for crop production.

This special part of our state needs our attention. Not only does this fertile agricultural swath help feed the nation; it also contains an abundance of groundwater basins. Throughout California, these basins currently have three times greater water storage capacity than all of the developed reservoirs scattered across our Golden State. A ha!

While some wells have run dry, Sustainable Conservation’s solutions spring eternal. We and our partners – including the Almond Board of California, UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and a growing number of irrigation districts – are putting to work an affordable, practical way to store more water in those groundwater basins: flood flows that come racing down rivers during wet seasons can be safely diverted onto cropland to percolate down slowly and replenish depleted aquifers beneath the earth’s surface.

In 2015, our focus on this underground crisis united a host of above-ground partners – farmers – interested in trying out this unique solution to our state’s water woes. Sustainable Conservation staff logged thousands of miles interviewing folks one-on-one, holding community workshops, and spreading the good news about the hopeful strategy with major potential to balance groundwater pumping and replenishment.

We’re happy to report a flood of interest poured in. Over 20 farmers with 131 sites on nearly 15,000 acres growing at least 11 different crops want to join us in building our state’s water “savings account.” On-farm recharge offers the most economical way to replenish up to 1/3 of the annual overdraft in critical areas of the San Joaquin Valley.

It may be tough to picture now, but rainy days will return to California. Due to climate change, future storm events will be stronger than ever. We are poised to meet and store away the deluge for dry times on the horizon.