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Replenishing Groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley

Summary

The San Joaquin Valley—which has the biggest imbalance between groundwater pumping and replenishment in the state—is ground zero for implementing the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Expanding groundwater recharge could help local water users bring their basins into balance and make a dent in the long-term deficit of nearly 2 million acre-feet per year. The experience with recharge in 2017―the first wet year since the enactment of SGMA―offers valuable insights in how to expand recharge. A survey of valley water districts’ current recharge efforts revealed strong interest in the practice, and a number of constraints. The following actions are needed to better capitalize on future opportunities:

  • Clarify rules on water available for recharge. The State Water Board needs to develop an expeditious process for enabling water users to capture surface water when it is available. Beyond the legal aspects of establishing rights for diversion and storage, an essential part of this process is technical: developing a simple, rapid way to determine when river flows exceed water required for environmental purposes and downstream users.
  • Evaluate infrastructure capacity. One of the key challenges for expanding recharge is that most available flows are in the northern part of the valley, while most of the overdraft―and best recharge lands―are in the south. In addition, these flows are mainly available for just a few months. A top priority is to evaluate opportunities for improving the use of existing infrastructure (conveyance facilities, surface reservoirs, and recharge basins) and determine where additional investments are warranted. A big bottleneck is likely to be regional conveyance, which is inadequate for capturing and moving high flows to suitable recharge locations.
  • Improve recharge on farmland. Active recharge on farmland may be one of the most promising ways to capture water cost-effectively in wetter years, but it is low relative to its potential. Significantly ramping up this practice will require addressing a suite of technical issues and establishing incentives.
  • Address regulatory barriers. State and federal agencies need to improve processes for approving construction of new recharge projects, moving recharge water through their conveyance facilities, and enabling more flexibility in where water is stored. Water managers and growers also need guidelines from the state for implementing on-farm recharge in ways that are consistent with water quality rules.
  • Strengthen groundwater accounting. Better accounting of water going into and out of groundwater basins is key to sustainable management. It is also needed for developing incentives for growers to recharge, encouraging recharge partnerships, and informing decisions on new investments.

Making the most of recharge opportunities will require high levels of cooperation among a wide variety of stakeholders. Local and regional partnerships―for capturing and moving water efficiently, making new investments, and devising projects that bring multiple benefits―are key to helping the region manage this critical resource over the long-term.

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This research was supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and Sustainable Conservation.

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