HURON, Calif., Nov 15 (Reuters) – The land along the Arroyo Pasajero creek, halfway between Sacramento and Los Angeles, is too dry to farm some years and dangerously flooded in others.
Amid cycles of rain and drought, both exacerbated by climate change, a coalition of local farmers and the nearby city of Huron are trying to turn former hemp and tomato fields into massive receptacles that can hold water as it seeps into the ground during rains. years.
This project and others like it in the breadbasket of California’s Central Valley aim to capture floodwaters that would otherwise rush into the sea or damage towns, cities and crops.
Traditional water storage in the form of damming rivers to create reservoirs harms the environment.
With parts of California suffering from a record drought, water was so scarce in the Central Valley this year that Huron was allocated only a quarter of the water it received under contract from the US Bureau of Reclamation.
The city, one of the poorest in California, had to buy water on the open market, driving up residents’ bills, engineering consultant Alfonso Manrique said.
The new project, known as a recharge system, turns disused fields into large ponds to hold water so it can seep into the porous rock and soil below, creating or restoring an aquifer rather than rushing out to 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 less than 7,000 people from catastrophic flooding.
The project near Huron is one of 340 recharge systems proposed by water agencies in California, enough to store 2.2 million acre-feet by 2030 if all are built, the state Department of Water Resources said. That’s enough for 4.4 million households for a year.
“I hope we can make water more affordable for our residents,” Huron Mayor Rey Leon said.
Outside of the United States, countries like India are also beginning to increase the use of recharge ponds to store water in natural or artificial aquifers. Water use and resilience are among the topics discussed by world leaders at the United Nations COP27 climate summit in Egypt this month.
While the idea of storing water underground isn’t new, a recent California law regulating groundwater use has spurred a number of projects that 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 recharge pond on land purchased from a local farmer, said Aaron Fukuda, general manager for the district. .
Several Okieville residents were left without 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 water underground for storage for both residents and for agriculture.
The project costs about $2 million, including about $1.8 million in state grants.
In addition to the comparatively small projects being built by rural water districts and farmers, the huge Metropolitan Water District, a regional water wholesaler serving southern and parts of central California, is building a 1,500-acre recharge pond. in the high desert near Palmdale, in collaboration with local water authorities.
California’s complex networks of reservoirs, rivers, and aqueducts were considered engineering marvels when state and federal governments built them in the mid-20th century.
But the system depended on damming and diverting rivers and flooding canyons, damaging their ecosystems. The last large dam was built in 1980. Since then, the state’s population has nearly doubled to 40 million.
California’s agricultural economy, one of the largest in the world, relies heavily on irrigation to water its crops, further taxing the system.
Now, new reservoirs are difficult to approve and expensive to build. Underground storage projects, according to Ann Hayden, a water expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, “are going to be easier to finance, they’re going to be easier to license and they’re going to get more public support.”
These man-made aquifers and underground water 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 below the agricultural land that will be served by the Huron project to store 1 million acre-feet of water, or about 326 billion gallons, enough to supply 2 million homes for a year.
“These are needed everywhere,” Woolf said.
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Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Edited by Donna Bryson and Lisa Shumaker
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