California seeks to exploit mega-storm floods to alleviate crippling drought

HURON, Calif., Nov 15 (Reuters) – The land along Arroyo Pasajero Creek, halfway between Sacramento and Los Angeles, is too dry to farm for some years and dangerously flooded in others.

Between the wet and dry cycles – both phenomena exacerbated by climate change – a coalition of local farmers and the nearby town of Huron are looking to transform former hemp and tomato fields into huge vessels capable of holding water as it seeps into the soil during the rainy years.

This project and others like it across California’s Central Valley granary aim to capture floodwaters that would otherwise spill overboard or damage towns, cities and crops.

Traditional water storage in the form of river dams to create reservoirs harms the environment.

With parts of California suffering a historic drought, water was so scarce in the Central Valley this year that Huron was only assigned a quarter of the water it would receive from the US Bureau of Reclamation.

The city, one of the poorest in California, had to buy water on the open market, increasing resident bills, engineering consultant Alfonso Manrique said.

The new project, known as the refill system, transforms unused fields into large ponds to hold water so it can seep into the porous rock and earth below, creating or restoring an aquifer rather than rushing into the sea. The city is building a new well to feed from the aquifer, Manrique said.

Capturing the runoff will also help protect the city of fewer than 7,000 people from catastrophic flooding.

The near Huron project is one of about 340 charging systems that have been proposed by California water agencies, enough to store 2.2 million acre feet by 2030 if all are built, the state Department of Water Resources said. This is enough for 4.4 million families for one year.

“I hope we can make water more accessible for our residents,” said Huron Mayor Rey Leon.

Outside the United States, countries, including India, are also starting to increase the use of recharge ponds to store water in natural or man-made aquifers. Water use and resilience are among the topics discussed by world leaders at the UN COP27 climate summit in Egypt this month.

While the idea of ​​storing water underground isn’t new, a recent California law regulating the use of groundwater has spurred a number of projects the state is helping to fund.

In the small community of Okieville about 40 miles (65 km) east of Huron, the Tulare Irrigation District is building a new charging basin on land purchased from a local farmer, said Aaron Fukuda, who is the general manager. of the district.

A number of Okieville residents ran out of drinking water during the state’s last major drought, which lasted from 2012 to 2016. The new pond, on approximately 20 acres of former farmland, will help guide underground water to store it. for residents and agriculture.

The project costs approximately $ 2 million, including approximately $ 1.8 million in state grants.

In addition to the relatively small projects undertaken by rural water districts and farmers, the massive Metropolitan Water District, a regional water wholesaler serving southern and parts of central California, is building a 1,500-acre charging pond in the high desert near in Palmdale, in collaboration with local water authorities.

ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE

California’s complex networks of reservoirs, rivers, and aqueducts were considered engineering marvels when the state and federal government built them in the mid-20th century.

But the system was based on damming and diverting rivers and flooding canyons, damaging their ecosystems. The last major dam was built in 1980. Since then, the state’s population has nearly doubled to 40 million residents.

California’s agricultural economy, one of the largest in the world, relies largely on irrigation to irrigate its crops, further taxing the system.

Now, the new tanks are difficult to approve and expensive to build. Underground storage projects, according to Ann Hayden, a water expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, “will be easier to fund, easier to authorize and get more public support.”

UNDERGROUND ROOM

These man-made aquifers and groundwater banks won’t solve all of California’s water problems, but they can make a significant dent, said Sarah Woolf, a water consultant whose family owns some of the farmland used for the Huron project.

There is space under the farmland that will be served by the Huron project to store 1 million acre feet of water, or about 326 billion gallons, enough to serve 2 million families for a year.

“These are needed everywhere,” Woolf said.

Read more:

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INSIGHT-Drought forces North American farmers to sell off their future

Reportage by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Donna Bryson and Lisa Shumaker

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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