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California Drought Update. A Way Forward

California’s drought woes are well known. One Central Valley farmer thinks he might have at least a partial solution: flooding.

While most farmers would steer clear of what seems like a counterintuitive plan, Cameron thinks the ambitious scheme could help put “millions of acre feet” of water back into the valley’s underground aquifer. Doing so in the winter, when El Nino runoff is in great supply, can help replenish the aquifer and offset water use during the growing season.

It’s an idea that Cameron’s had in the works for decades. After seeing a vineyard survive serious storms in the early eighties, while completely submerged, his theory began to take root. In 2011, he put it to the test, much to the shock of neighboring farmers. He used storm run off to completely flood a vineyard of over 300 acres. The resulting water stood more than 12 inches deep, for nearly six months.

His gamble paid off; the flooding resulted in 3,000 acre feet of water being added to the aquifer, which Cameron characterized as a “tremendous amount of water.” He’s right to celebrate—nearly seventy percent of the water used in the flooding made it back into the water table. Furthermore, neither the vines nor the following grape crop were adversely affected.

Cameron plans to duplicate his efforts on a larger scale soon, thanks to his plan to quadruple canal capacity to the tune of seven million dollars.

And he’s not the only one. Many previously skeptical growers will be joining him. The aquifer’s state is growing more troubling every year—it’s now 250 feet below the surface. Most of the valley is dependent on that water, and fingers have been pointing at farmers for some time, blaming them for overuse of the precious resource. The lack of rain during the growing season has, after all, forced many growers to be more dependent on the aquifer than in years past.

Sustainable Conservation, a non-profit focused on environmental issues, is working with Cameron to explore just how practical the flooding could be as a solution. Part of that process involves demonstration projects involving various crops: almonds, tree fruits, and vineyards, with the cooperation of local growers. Daniel Mountjoy, the non-profit’s director of resource stewardship, says that the demonstration projects can be as small as five acres or as large as 150 acres.

Now hydrology scientists at the University of California are joining the experimental efforts, which have now been dubbed “groundwater banking.”

Some of the necessary elements for success are already known. For one thing, the soil type needs to be porous and sandy, or the standing water won’t be absorbed efficiently. It’s less certain how the flooding will affect the different crops; many growers are concerned that, in the case of larger trees, standing water combined with storms could lead to the trees blowing over.

Flooded fields

This winter, tests on almond orchards will move forward, under the supervision of the University of California, led by U.C. Davis’s Helen Dahlke. The orchards will be even more dramatically flooded than Cameron’s vineyards, with water reaching a depth of two feet, for a period of two months. The scientists will not only measure the actual absorption of the water, but will also monitor the trees for root rot, and test the quality of the water, over a two year period of time.

Of course, it’s not simply Cameron’s success or Mountjoy’s efforts that are convincing more and more growers to get on board with the new project. There are other factors as well—not the least of which is new state-wide legislation which will require farmers to account for the amount of groundwater they use annually. If they are able to successfully replenish the aquifer through periodic flooding during the offseason, they could avoid fines or other consequences for overuse.

Cameron and Mountjoy are even more optimistic. After all, most of the $7 million Cameron is using to up the canal’s capacity comes from a government grant to reduce downstream flooding—which paves the way for other incentives that farmers who flood responsibly might look forward to.

However, it’s important to note that growers, policy makers, and scientists alike must move forward with a certain amount of caution. Aside from the potential negative effects the flooding might have on certain crops, there are also questions regarding ownership of the diverted flood water and questions about how chemicals absorbed from fertilizers or pesticides may affect drinking water. These issues will need to be resolved before groundwater banking can continue on a large scale.

Still, it’s an important step. California’s water shortage isn’t just a problem for the state itself. Here at Permaculturenews.org, we try to stress interconnectedness. This drought doesn’t affect Californians alone — the state produces nearly half the vegetables, nuts, and fruit in the United States. The drought is affecting budgets across the nation. It’s also led to problems with local wildlife, like the need to evacuate fish hatcheries due to lack of cool mountain runoff, and an increased risk of wildfires.

We must always think beyond the immediate ramifications of our environmental decisions and explore how those decisions affect the entire ecosystem. Hopefully, scientists, growers, and policy makers will come together and find a way to combat the negative effects of the drought in a manner that benefits that ecosystem as a whole.

The Permaculture Research Insitute

PRI Zaytuna Farm functions as a model farm (in development) and permaculture training facility. Geoff and Nadia Lawton, world-renowned permaculture educators and consultants, lead the project. Much of Geoff and Nadia’s time over the last few years has been spent away from the Institute, consulting and helping set up projects in diverse locales around the world. Seeing the worldwide demand for knowledgeable permaculture consultants and teachers increase exponentially, as fuel and fertiliser prices skyrocket and the effects of climate change, soil depletion and water shortages begin to hit hard, priority and focus is now shifting back to the Institute, where growing the training program will increase the output of quality teachers to help fill the growing need for them.

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