Deluge After Drought

As a young boy in Redding, Calif., Don Cameron remembers wild grapes growing happily from roots submerged in creek water. Years later, on his way to and from work during the winter of 1982-83, he kept an eye on a vineyard flooded by the brimming San Joaquin River. Come fall that year, he marveled over the harvest of a bountiful crop from those formerly soaked vines.

Little did Don know those memories would later guide him in pioneering an on-farm solution, in partnership with Sustainable Conservation, to California’s water supply predicament.

Fast forward to 2011, a notably wet year in our Golden State. Now general manager of Terranova Ranch in Fresno County, Don worked with researchers to measure his outlandish strategy of introducing flood flows from the Kings River to working fields. Connecting his memories of grape chutzpah, Don took an educated risk and flooded 1,000 acres containing vineyard, alfalfa, pistachio, and open-ground acreage with 7,000 acre-feet of water. “Our neighbors didn’t know what we were doing,” says Don. “They thought we were nuts.” But the experiment paid off! The crops thrived despite their extended dip, and the water table below drank in a hearty refill.

By letting excess water stand in the fields and percolate down, Don helps replenish groundwater basins pumped beyond their means in the service of local farming that feeds the nation.

Sustainable Conservation partners with Don, UC Davis researchers, the Almond Board of California, and irrigation districts to promote adoption of this revelatory practice – which helps nurse aquifers back to health without taking agricultural land out of production.

We are currently expanding our demonstration footprint by setting up sites throughout the San Joaquin Valley on diverse acreage, including a young walnut orchard offered by Don. We’ll monitor each site to collect recharge data and communicate success stories to others interested in adopting the practice. In critical areas of the San Joaquin Valley, on-farm recharge offers the most economical way to replenish up to 1/3 of annual overdraft.

Following five years of drought, 2017’s spate of explosive storms has conveyed for many what Don and Sustainable Conservation have known all along: California’s variable, changing climate means we need to prepare for both droughts and floods, conserving during dry times and capturing precipitation during wet years in our aquifers.

While the drought ravaged both our natural and working landscapes, the crisis bound people together in seeking solutions. In 2014, California made a momentous decision, through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), to focus on the health and longevity of our subterranean water stores. That legislation has fueled unprecedented collaboration to bring our groundwater basins into balance.

“More and more, we’re going to see years where we go from zero to uncontrolled flows in a short amount of time,” says Don. “Increased weather extremes have been predicted, and here we are.” With the future upon us, working together is key to caching the deluge for parched years that will inevitably return.

Don’s a shrewd businessman with a strong conservation ethic stemming from his post-college days working in wildlife management and countless hours hiking Yosemite with his wife. He thinks holistically about ranch operations, taking cues from local ecology and his travels with agricultural associations to investigate how other cultures grow food. “Learning about different farming practices around the world, you can often find things to bring home and improve upon to fit your circumstances. But you have to be looking for connections.”

Connecting the dots and trying new things: it’s the California way – and it’s how Sustainable Conservation has always operated to drive environmental progress. Don carries that spirit within him.

While change is imperative to build water resiliency for California, shifting long-held habits by risking crops or financing new water systems can be hard. That’s why Sustainable Conservation and friends like Don ease the transition by demonstrating a clear path forward.

With on-farm recharge in play, Don is hopeful about the future. Those same folks who thought he was crazy back in 2011? Today, they’re shaking his hand and thanking him for introducing a water management practice that can help save their farms and communities.

Given the abundant rain drenching California this year, it can be easy to forget about the alarmingly dry period of 2012-2016, and we must work together against that amnesia for a more sustainable water future for all.