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Water officials work to assist recharge projects

Issue Date: November 6, 2019
By Christine Souza

A technique that would help California manage floodwater and replenish groundwater has gained more attention, and removing barriers to the strategy known as Flood-MAR provided the focus for a conference in Sacramento.

Flood-managed aquifer recharge involves moving floodwater from surface streams onto land where it could percolate into a groundwater basin. Though the concept sounds simple, it brings complications that include managing the floodwater, finding appropriate land to accept it and establishing rights to the water involved.

At last week's conference, about 200 state water officials, farmers, researchers and representatives of non-governmental organizations gathered to discuss aspects of Flood-MAR such as formulating multi-benefit projects, incentivizing aquifer recharge, its application to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and improving policy and regulations to support the strategy.

"The intended outcome of this forum is to engage stakeholders from multiple sectors, disciplines and organizations to look at strategies and innovation to advance flood-managed aquifer recharge in California," said Kamyar Guivetchi of the California Department of Water Resources. "For Flood-MAR to be successful, it is all about partnerships and voluntary participation. We really have to move toward a co-management approach."

Noting that much progress has been made in recent years to move Flood-MAR forward in California, Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation and a member of the State Board of Food and Agriculture, said the strategy fits with Gov. Gavin Newsom's water resiliency portfolio, which emphasizes the importance of prioritizing multiple-benefit projects and natural infrastructure. She added that the State Water Resources Control Board issued guidance on when recharge can be considered a beneficial use of water.

"Groundwater recharge really works best when it achieves multiple benefits and that's things like wildlife habitat, harmonizing with farming practices, water quality, flood risk reduction and conjunctive use," Boren said.

Speaking as part of a panel on formulating Flood-MAR projects with multiple benefits, David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, said the state's water infrastructure has been designed to move floodwaters quickly to protect people and the land.

"But the rest of the time, which is again a large bulk of the time, we are thinking about: How do you manage that system differently?" Guy said. "That's where we think spreading the water out and slowing it down is really the future that we want to be envisioning over the next 20 years. We've seen (Flood-MAR) work with agriculture, our Pacific Flyway and we're now expanding that into the fish arena. That paints the picture of how we envision multi-benefit management."

Speaking on incentivizing aquifer recharge, panelist Marco Bell, a water engineer for the Merced Irrigation District, said it is important to understand that farmers don't always trust government, adding, "How are we going to implement Flood-MAR without incentivizing the farmers? We have to have some real incentives, real solutions and real benefits."

University of California Cooperative Extension economist Ellen Bruno said some challenges arise when developing a program that subsidizes or compensates farmers for on-farm recharge.

"One major challenge is uncertainty in the size of the public benefits, because you need to determine the magnitude of that financial compensation for the subsidy," Bruno said. "A second complication is the fact that the benefits and costs of doing recharge on one farm varies from the cost and benefits of doing recharge on another farm. There is a lot to think about in how to design these programs well."

Groundwater agencies view Flood-MAR as one element in helping them comply with SGMA requirements to bring groundwater aquifers into balance.

Regarding SGMA, Taryn Ravazzini, DWR deputy director of statewide groundwater management, called better understanding of groundwater basins key to the bigger picture of water management in the state.

"Flood-MAR is a piece of this larger, broader water resiliency puzzle that we are trying to address at the state level," Ravazzini said, noting that aboveground reservoirs hold 50 million acre-feet of water and the state's 515 groundwater basins can hold between 850 million and 1.3 billion acre-feet. "We need to be looking at (all water resources) as one resource, and we need to be doing that not just from a basin level, but from a watershed or regional level."

On improving the policy and regulatory landscape to support multiple-benefit Flood-MAR projects, state water board Chairman Joaquin Esquivel said, "The challenge for us at the regulatory level is certainly figuring out how to break down those silos within ourselves."

There is some help in obtaining permits to be able to do projects, Esquivel said, adding that it is important to streamline the ability to use peak flows from large flood events.

Mark Dawson, engineer with the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, said he was encouraged by the enthusiasm shared by people at the forum who recognize the importance of doing more to address the groundwater decline in the Central Valley.

"The concept of better utilizing untapped water supply resources such as floodwater to augment California groundwater supplies I think is a great idea," said Dawson, who added that his district is focused on expanding its recharge capability to better utilize all available wet-year supplies. "As was discussed in the panels and because time is of the essence, streamlining the project approval process will be crucial for realizing Flood-MAR benefits in California in the short term."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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