Recharging depleted aquifers no easy task, but it’s key to #California’s water supply future — @WaterEdFdn

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

WESTERN WATER NOTEBOOK: A UC BERKELEY SYMPOSIUM EXPLORES APPROACHES AND CHALLENGES TO MANAGED AQUIFER RECHARGE AROUND THE WEST

A water recharge basin in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. Source: California Department of Water Resources

To survive the next drought and meet the looming demands of the state’s groundwater sustainability law, California is going to have to put more water back in the ground. But as other Western states have found, recharging overpumped aquifers is no easy task.

Successfully recharging aquifers could bring multiple benefits for farms and wildlife and help restore the vital interconnection between groundwater and rivers or streams. As local areas around California draft their groundwater sustainability plans, though, landowners in the hardest hit regions of the state know they will have to reduce pumping to address the chronic overdraft in which millions of acre-feet more are withdrawn than are naturally recharged.

It’s not a new problem, but one that is emblematic of California’s long-standing separation of surface water and groundwater in its management oversight. Some say it’s a problem the state should have been working on long ago as other states around the West have done.

“We are so far behind everybody else,” said Felicia Marcus, former chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “As we get to the point where managed aquifer recharge is the obvious answer to a regular person, a regular person would assume we’re already doing this.”

UC Berkeley groundwater symposium panelists (from left) Dave Owen with UC Hastings School of the Law, former State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus and Bill Blomquist, with Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Source: University of California, Berkeley

Marcus was among the panelists from across the West at a Sept. 10 groundwater recharge symposium presented by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment. Panelists discussed a variety of approaches and challenges to getting water back in the ground to aid depleted aquifers.

Until the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, there was no statewide governance regulating groundwater pumping. California was the last state in the West to address its groundwater crisis with regulation.

Landowners could take as much as they wanted, if it was put to a beneficial use. In good times, with stable imported water deliveries and relatively healthy aquifers, pumping is not a problem. But decades of overdraft have put a significant dent in parts of the San Joaquin Valley. The land surface has literally sunk in certain areas because of the large-scale pumping of water. Finally, in 2014, lawmakers sought to put the brakes on the problem with SGMA. Sustainability plans required under SGMA for the most overdrafted areas are due in January 2020.

Heavily opposed during its introduction and still facing resistance today, SGMA emphasizes a ground-up approach that requires local leaders to devise the means to bring the most severely depleted aquifers into balance in the next 20 years.

This schematic illustrates different ways managed aquifer recharge can be accomplished. Source: California Department of Water Resources

One way to do that is by managed aquifer recharge, or MAR. Surface water or flows from storm-swollen rivers are steered onto land where the water percolates into the ground. It is a straightforward process that works within the right parameters, experts say.

“Recharge is just engineering,” Tom Cech, co-director of the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said at the symposium. “It’s finding the pipes and a location.”

On average, aquifers provide about 40 percent of the water used by California’s farms and cities in a normal rain year, and significantly more in dry years. There’s a growing recognition that surface water and groundwater are connected: Surface waters gain volume from the inflow of groundwater through the streambed. That volume is lost when groundwater pumping rates exceed natural recharge.

Managed aquifer recharge projects strive to replicate the natural process in which winter rains soak into the ground and replenish water above and below ground. However, projects require extensive monitoring and management to be successful. Farmers for years inadvertently recharged their aquifers through flood irrigation of certain crops and orchards. If they’re asked to act intentionally to recharge, they want assurances they can reap the benefit.

“If we put water in, we want to retain the right to take it out,” Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch, 25 miles southwest of Fresno, said at the Berkeley symposium. Terranova has been a leader in using winter runoff to flood its fields for groundwater recharge. “To me that’s the incentive for a grower to do groundwater recharge. I want water security just as much as anyone else does.”

In the West, managed aquifer recharge projects in Colorado, Idaho and Washington state are looking to boost depleted aquifers while at the same time strengthening streamflow and benefiting the environment. “Any time you have more water in the river, it’s good for everyone,” said Jennifer Johnson, hydrologic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest Region’s Water Management Group, which is working to replenish aquifers in the Yakima River Valley in south central Washington.

Leaving Water in the Ground

In California, every drop of surface water is accounted for, even the bonus flows that come during very wet years.

In the strict, defined world of the state’s water rights, quantity, beneficial use and avoiding wasteful use is paramount. Beneficial use means exactly that. It’s the water people use at home each day, the irrigation that raises crops and the hydroelectric power so crucial as a renewable energy source.

It’s also the water that pulses through major waterways, keeping fish like salmon alive and healthy as they migrate to and from the ocean.

Don Cameron, vice president and general manager of Terranova Ranch, near Fresno. Terranova has been a leader in using winter runoff to flood its fields for groundwater recharge. Source: University of California, Berkeley

While helpful, the act of storing water to recharge aquifers is not a designated beneficial use, according to the State Water Board. Obtaining a water right to divert water to underground storage means identifying the eventual beneficial use of that water, the board says. That could include uses that allow for water to remain in the aquifer, such as to prevent land subsidence.

That process is not as difficult as it sounds because a wide interpretation exists for beneficial uses, especially as it relates to avoiding some of the undesirable results identified in SGMA.

Managed aquifer recharge and groundwater banking are essentially the same practice with different outcomes. Managed aquifer recharge boosts overall health of aquifers and nearby rivers and streams. In some instances, some of the water can be pumped back up. In groundwater banking, water is intentionally injected or percolated strictly for later withdrawal. Groundwater banks such as those in the southern San Joaquin Valley store vast quantities of imported water that faraway partners use through a complicated exchange process.

The key is having the available water to get into the ground — not always an easy task. “We’ve had two very wet years recently, but in most years, we don’t really have excess surface flows that can be recharged to groundwater, at least not in significant amounts,” said Dave Owen, professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. “And even when we do have flood flows, they aren’t always in the places that most need” the water.

Incremental Implementation – Colorado and Idaho

The South Platte River Basin is shaded in yellow. Source: Tom Cech, One World One Water Center, Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Managed aquifer recharge is instrumental in preserving the health of the South Platte River in northeastern Colorado, where groundwater pumping has been depleting flows in the river. There, well owners have been paying taxes and annual assessments since 1973, in part to construct groundwater recharge sites.

In 2006, due to a drought and changing legal parameters, the annual assessments were increased 400 percent and about $100 million of bonds have been approved since then by voters. Some of those funds were used to construct recharge projects, said Cech with Metropolitan State University in Denver.

In Idaho, about a third of the state’s economy relies on the agricultural products from the region known as the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer in southern Idaho. A decade ago, with the water table dropping, lawmakers saw the coming crisis and adopted a comprehensive water management plan for the area.

“The declining spring river flows as a result of the declining aquifer would have resulted in curtailing most of the groundwater users in the area,” said Wesley Hipke, recharge program manager with the Idaho Department of Water Resources. “This would not only have affected agriculture, but also the cities and towns and related industries that are currently in place.”

Idaho decided to tackle managed aquifer recharge from a state perspective because of the scale of the project (10,000 square miles), the aversion to a new tax and the realization that the cost of doing nothing was not acceptable, Hipke said.

“Obviously without a stable water supply, the prospect of future growth is slim,” he said.

The state’s plan outlined the means to manage overall water demand while increasing aquifer recharge and reducing withdrawals. Grabbing as much natural flow as possible, the plan’s aim is to reach 250,000 acre-feet of annual recharge by 2024.

Challenges and Potential for MAR in California

Tom Cech, co-director of the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Source: University of California, Berkeley

As vital as groundwater is to California’s water supply, the extent of expanded managed aquifer recharge remains to be seen. Aquifers are recharged naturally every time it rains and snows, but carefully managed recharge is happening on a limited basis.

“There’s no question it can expand. The question is by how much,” said Owen with UC Hastings.

In its review of groundwater recharge, the Public Policy Institute of California noted in September that a key challenge is inadequate conveyance for moving storm flows to suitable recharge locations. There is “significant potential” to increase MAR on farmland if local agencies adopt better incentive systems and water accounting, PPIC wrote.

Getting water in and out of aquifers using MAR is a big challenge, from an infrastructure standpoint of getting the water when it’s available and moving it to where it can sink into the ground, Owen said in an interview. In addition, there’s not a perfect accounting process for tracking those water molecules. Even in cases where groundwater is being banked, getting the water back out that someone has put in can be complicated in aquifers with “unrestrained, poorly regulated” pumping.

“If you put water into a bank, you may have a legal right to withdraw it,” Owen said, “but that legal right does you no good if someone else has pumped out the physical water.”

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
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One World One Water Center: #Colorado Student Water Field Conference, September 20-22, 2019 @OWOW_MSUDenver

Colorado’s strong #snowpack eliminated #drought conditions statewide. Here’s what that means for our rivers, reservoirs and wildfire risks — @MSUDenver

From Metropolitan State University of Denver (Amanda Miller):

Coloradans can retire the refrain, “We need the moisture.” At least for the time being.

For the first time in at least 19 years, no area of the state is experiencing drought conditions as measured by the U.S. Drought Monitor, which has been measuring conditions since 2000…

While the end of drought conditions is widely considered a positive, water experts warn that existing conditions could be a double-edged sword for Colorado.

On the positive side, the “amazing” June snowpack is good news for Colorado’s river-related recreation economy, said Tom Cech, director of Metropolitan State University’s One World One Water (OWOW) Center for Urban Water Education. Whether the snow melts gradually or in a late-spring or early-summer surge, it’s good news for tourists recreating on the state’s rivers and mountain creeks, though safety will be paramount as flows rise.

Rafters make their way down Clear Creek in Idaho Springs. Colorado’s rivers are running high after an epic winter and wet spring. Photo credit: Sara Hertwig via Metropolitan State University of Denver

Likewise, Colorado’s water infrastructure is capable of capturing large volumes of water in reservoirs for flood control and future use, said Thomas Bellinger, Ph.D., a hydrologist who teaches environmental science and policy, snow hydrology and water law in MSU Denver’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science.

“Past high-snowpack years – 1995 and 2003, for instance – proved that the state’s infrastructure can handle these conditions,” he said.

Reservoir storage remains generally low in anticipation of rising stream flows as rivers have yet to peak, the USDA NRCS said in a June 6 press release. Below normal reservoir levels will help in absorbing above normal stream flows.

Just don’t expect those full reservoirs to lead to lower municipal and commercial water prices, Cech said.

“In general, expect water prices to continue to escalate,” he said.

Steamboat Spring’s Fish Creek Falls, photographed the week of June 10, cascades 280 feet. Colorado’s rivers are running high after an epic winter and wet spring. Photo credit: Amanda Miller via Metropolitan State University at Denver

But a stretch of warm days in the High County – especially with rain added in – could melt a lot of snow quickly, sending a “pulse of water” into the Front Range via waterways such as Cherry Creek, Coal Creek, Boulder Creek and other tributaries that merge into the South Platte River north of Denver, Cech said.

Compounding the danger of a fast melt is the fact that the state’s snowpack is actually deeper than the data indicate, Bellinger said. Snowpack data cited in this story and other publications come from “snowpack telemetry” stations – known as SNOTEL – that are between 10,000 and 12,000 feet of elevation.

“There is a lot of snow above that elevation, and while it may melt slower because of cooler temps up there, much of it will melt into already-full rivers,” he said.

While it may defy logic, the current wet conditions in the mountains may increase the danger of wildfires, Bellinger said.

“The mountains are so green right now, and if this snowpack and a wet spring lead to a lot of undergrowth, that could become fuel for forest fires if it dries out in the late summer or fall,” he said.

Cech and Bellinger warn that the current drought-free conditions do not portend a drought-free future.

“This will likely be a good recovery year, but we’re coming out of an El Niño cycle, which tends to be wetter, and entering a La Niñacycle, which tends to be dryer,” Bellinger said.

El Niño patterns develop when water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator warm above average, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research. La Niña conditions occur when that water is cooler than average.

Likewise, the long-term trends of climate change point toward extended periods of drought in Colorado, Bellinger said.

“With climate change, we can still expect these periods of relief,” he said. “But the trends point toward extended periods of drought in the American West.”

Watershed Summit 2019 #watershedsummit2019

I’ll be live-tweeting from the Watershed Summit today. Follow along on my Twitter feed @CoyoteGulch or with the hash tag #watershedsummit2019.

Denver: Watershed Summit 2019, June 27, 2019

Click here to go to the Resource Central website for all the inside skinny:

The Watershed Summit is rapidly becoming the region’s top event for water industry leaders. Join 250+ water utility executives, business leaders, conservation experts, and other professionals to gain the new insights you need to help position your organization for success.

Watershed Summit 2019 is produced through a collaborative partnership between the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Denver Water, the City of Boulder, Aurora Water, the One World One Water Center, Resource Central, and the Denver Botanic Gardens. Building on the success of the last 4 years, this one-day summit helps you get connected to industry leaders and what works best across the Mountain West.

Standard Registration: $65

We are thrilled to feature a dynamic line-up of experts in the water field who are excited to share their knowledge and join in on the conversation.

Special Guest: Phil Weiser, Attorney General for the State of Colorado

  • J. J. Ament, CEO, Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation
  • Ze’ev Barylka, Marketing Director US, Netafim
  • Cynthia S. Campbell, Water Resources Management Advisor, City of Phoenix
  • Beorn Courtney, President, Element Water
  • Lisa Darling, Executive Director, South Metro Water Supply Authority
  • Carol Ekarius, Executive Director, Coalition for the Upper South Platte
  • Jorge Figueroa, Chief Innovation Officer, Americas for Conservation
  • Brent Gardner Smith, Journalist, Aspen Times
  • Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources
  • Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, State of Colorado
  • Jim Havey, Filmmaker, HaveyPro Cinema
  • Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water
  • Peter Marcus, Communications Director, Terrapin Care Station
  • Fernando Nardi, Professor, Università per Stranieri di Perugia, Italy
  • Cristina Rulli, Professor, Milan Polytechnic, Italy
  • Luke Runyon, Reporter, KUNC
  • Harold Smethills, Founder, Sterling Ranch
  • Jamie Sudler, Executive Producer, H2O Radio
  • Weston Toll, Watershed Program Specialist, CO State Forest Service
  • Chris Treese, External Affairs Manager, Colorado River District
  • Larry Vickerman, Director, Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms
  • Scott Winter, Water Conservation Specialist, Colorado Springs Utility

Panel Topics Include:

  • The Colorado River
  • Water and Business
  • Agriculture
  • Watershed Health
  • Conservation and Storage

Arkansas River Basin Water Forum scholarships for water resources students and working professionals

Bents Fort photo via Greg Hobbs

Click here for all the inside skinny and to apply:

Scholarship Details

With the assistance of our sponsors, the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum offers scholarships each year offers scholarships each year to students and working professionals in support of their education and research in water resources, watershed studies, hydrology, natural resources management, and others. We offer scholarships in the amount of $2,000 and $1,000, plus free admission to the 2019 Arkansas River Basin Water Forum.

The requirements of the scholarship are as follows:

The Arkansas River Basin Water Forum (ARBWF) preference to award students scholarships who are from the Arkansas Basin and whose work the ARBWF Board expects will provide a benefit to Colorado’s Arkansas River Basin.

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

The Fall newsletter is hot off the presses from the @OWOW_MSUDenver

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Student Water Field Conference

Join us September 21-23, 2018 on Grand Mesa in Western Colorado. Spend a September weekend in the aspens on western Colorado’s Grand Mesa learning about water management, snow science and aquatic ecosystems with college students from across the state! A registration fee of $20 covers lodging in cabins at Vega Lodge as well as some meals.

For registration, itinerary, and event details Click Here