Groundwater recharge in an almond orchard
Groundwater recharge in an almond orchard. (Photo: Sustainable Conservation—

By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics

The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) held its spring conference in Monterey May 9-11. The conference brings water managers, water district directors, and water professionals from around the state. Unsurprisingly, there was keen interest in groundwater issues and recharge this year. The use of groundwater recharge as a management tool to aid in groundwater sustainability is familiar to Kern County, a long-time leader in groundwater recharge. Aaron Fukuda from Tulare Irrigation District provided an overview of how groundwater recharge was being implemented in his district utilizing three elements: recharge in unlined canals (150 cfs), on-farm (380 cfs), and dedicated recharge basin (370 cfs) for a total of 900 cfs. The incentive to take water for on-farm recharge, even when water costs are non-trivial, increased due to SGMA and his ability to get credit to the farm water account under his district’s program. The status of surface and groundwater accounts and water use are available to farmers through an impressive computer dashboard.

On-farm recharge on Don Cameron’s Ranch in western Fresno County. (Photo: Terranova Ranch)

On-farm recharge is occurring but with caution throughout the state. While on-farm recharge has the potential to increase significantly the capacity to recharge groundwater, where the geology is suitable, and to reduce downstream flooding, there are concerns that farm chemicals and fertilizer could be transferred to the groundwater, impacting drinking water quality for domestic wells. From the farmer’s perspective, it can interfere with farm operations. Additionally, in orchards and vineyards, there are concerns about impacts on tree and vine health and yield. Anecdotally, some farmers have pushed the limits of recharge in orchards and vineyards accidentally or deliberately. Following a levee break, one pistachio farmer had his trees flooded up to the trunk fork for several weeks when the orchard was dormant and then experienced his best bud break. Don Cameron farms in western Fresno County, where there are no surface water rights. Don aggressively floods his permanent crops when flood water is available. And the Almond Board is actively studying the impacts of on-farm recharge on almonds.

Paul Gosling, DWR’s Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management, reported that groundwater plans for thirty subbasins had been approved, but six have not: Kern, Tulare Lake, Chowchilla, Kaweah, Tule, and Delta-Mendota, with Madera still under review. DWR has referred these subbasins to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) for consideration. The board can place these subbasins on probation and oversee their management. DWR took that action for several reasons, including insufficient attention to resolving groundwater subsidence, inadequate protection of domestic wells in disadvantaged communities, and insufficient coordination between groundwater plans within a subbasin. The prospects of probation throughout most of the southern San Joaquin Valley have many water district managers justly concerned.

The unsettling increase in power and authority of the SWRCB was raised in several forums but is receiving support in the state legislature (AB1337, SB389). Part of that arose due to actions by a handful of farmers in northern California during last year’s drought. Rather than let their crops fail, they illegally diverted water from their local river, knowing that the SWRCB could not immediately stop them, and considered the subsequent fines to be a necessary business expense. A bill has now been introduced to prevent a similar reoccurrence. Still, that same bill dramatically extends the power of the SWRCB well beyond what is needed to fix that problem, with consequences for many farmers in California.

Additionally, there are several bills seeking to modify or upend water rights. Pre-1914 water rights, including all of the Kern River water rights, have been mainly exempt from SWRCB oversight until now. But with the increasing likelihood of droughts and the need to reallocate water during droughts to meet critical needs, the ability of the SWRCB to influence pre-1914 rights is likely to change. Additional bills look to upend the water rights system in California (see Introducing Modernizing California Water Law | Planning and Conservation League ( These proposals are being adamantly opposed by ACWA, the California Farm Bureau (Water rights ‘under siege’: California Farm Bureau warns of battles ahead | Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.) and a coalition of organizations throughout California.

Ernest Conant, Regional Director of the US Bureau of Reclamation and much-loved retired Kern County Water Attorney, reported on numerous efforts by the Bureau to increase storage in the state, including Sites Reservoir, Del Puerto Reservoir, and enlarging San Luis Reservoir. John Lehigh, from DWR, reported on concerns resulting from aging infrastructure on the State Water project – infrastructure that is now more than 60 years and repair bills likely to run into the billions.

California farmers continue to face a tidal wave of government oversight, regulations, and reporting that only seems to worsen with each legislative session. While conferences are sometimes regarded as an excuse to get away from the office for a few days and exercise the company credit card, the ACWA Conference provides opportunities for water leaders to discuss their problems, understand the proposed solutions, and work together to improve the water situation in California. They need all the help they can get.

Previous articleSeminars on Soil Health, AgTech, International Trade, and More Published by World Ag Expo
Next articleKern River Water Continues to Flow to The California Aqueduct; Reservoir Expected to Fill by End of Year