As a young boy in Redding, Calif., Don Cameron remembers wild grapes growing happily from roots submerged in creek water. Years later, on his way to and from work during the winter of 1982-83, he kept an eye on a vineyard flooded by the brimming San Joaquin River. Come fall that year, he marveled over the harvest of a bountiful crop from those formerly soaked vines.
Little did Don know those memories would later guide him in pioneering an on-farm solution, in partnership with Sustainable Conservation, to California’s water supply predicament.
Fast forward to 2011, a notably wet year in our Golden State. Now general manager of Terranova Ranch in Fresno County, Don worked with researchers to measure his outlandish strategy of introducing flood flows from the Kings River to working fields. Connecting his memories of grape chutzpah, Don took an educated risk and flooded 1,000 acres containing vineyard, alfalfa, pistachio, and open-ground acreage with 7,000 acre-feet of water. “Our neighbors didn’t know what we were doing,” says Don. “They thought we were nuts.” But the experiment paid off! The crops thrived despite their extended dip, and the water table below drank in a hearty refill.
By letting excess water stand in the fields and percolate down, Don aids the replenishment of groundwater basins pumped beyond their means in the service of local farming that feeds the nation.
Sustainable Conservation partners with Don, UC Davis researchers, the Almond Board of California, and irrigation districts to promote adoption of this revelatory practice – which helps nurse aquifers back to health without taking agricultural land out of production. Your support spreads the word about groundwater recharge as a powerful action plan for ensuring our farms can grow food, our communities have clean drinking water, and our waterways can sustain fish and wildlife for years to come.
We are currently expanding our demonstration footprint, setting up sites throughout the San Joaquin Valley on diverse acreage, including a young walnut orchard offered by Don. Each site will be monitored to collect recharge data and communicate success stories to others interested in adopting the practice. In critical areas of the San Joaquin Valley, on-farm recharge offers the most economical way to replenish up to 1/3 of annual overdraft.
Following five years of drought, 2017’s spate of explosive storms has conveyed for many what Don and Sustainable Conservation have known all along: California’s variable, changing climate means we need to prepare for both droughts and floods, conserving during dry times and capturing precipitation during wet years in our aquifers.
While the drought ravaged both our natural and working landscapes, the crisis bound people together in seeking solutions. In 2014, California made a momentous decision, through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), to focus on the health and longevity of our subterranean water stores. That legislation has fueled unprecedented collaboration to bring our groundwater basins into balance.
“More and more, we’re going to see years where we go from zero to uncontrolled flows in a short amount of time,” says Don. “Increased weather extremes have been predicted, and here we are.” With the future upon us, working together is key to caching the deluge for parched years that will inevitably return.
Don’s a shrewd businessman with a strong conservation ethic stemming from his post-college days working in wildlife management and countless hours hiking Yosemite with his wife. He thinks holistically about ranch operations, taking cues from local ecology and his travels with agricultural associations to investigate how other cultures grow food. “Learning about different farming practices around the world, you can often find things to bring home and improve upon to fit your circumstances. But you have to be looking for connections.”
Connecting the dots and trying new things: it’s the California way – and it’s how Sustainable Conservation has always operated to drive environmental progress. Don carries that spirit within him.
While change is imperative to build water resiliency for California, shifting long-held habits – by taking risks with one’s crops or financing new water systems – can be hard. That’s why Sustainable Conservation and friends like Don ease the transition by demonstrating a clear path forward.
With on-farm recharge in play, Don is hopeful about the future. Those same folks who thought he was crazy back in 2011? Today, they’re shaking his hand and thanking him for introducing a water management practice that can help save their farms and communities.
Given the abundant rain drenching California this year, it can be easy to forget about the alarmingly dry period of 2012-2016 – but we must work together against that amnesia. Your contributions enact a long-term strategy for conserving and protecting water in our Golden State – regardless of the weather du jour.
Think of California’s groundwater as a savings account that’s available for us during years when surface supplies – either in the form of snow storage or runoff into our reservoirs – are inadequate to meet the needs of communities, farms, and the environment. As with emergency stashes of the financial variety, our subterranean water fund needs to be regularly replenished so we can draw upon it during future droughts.
During wet years like 2017, our waterways, dams, and reservoirs can only handle so much volume before they overflow. One recent example of this is the Oroville Dam debacle, where the force of diverted water quickly degraded spillways and forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 local residents.
While the holding capacity of our surface waterways fills up quickly, there’s plenty of storage room – three times as much – in groundwater basins deep below our feet across California. We can use these spacious repositories by redirecting and capturing floodwaters from rivers that would historically spread across the landscape but are now confined by levee systems in order to protect our farmland and cities.
Flood flow delivery during wet years to agricultural fields via existing canal infrastructure allows water to spread out over the land and seep down to restock our parched aquifers. This strategy also protects downstream homes and businesses from flooding and leaves more water in-stream to support fish and wildlife.
Hear more on the subject from Dr. Daniel Mountjoy, Sustainable Conservation’s Director of Resource Stewardship.
Big Data to Aid Big Decisions: With your support, Sustainable Conservation is developing a geospatial scenario testing software tool in partnership with Earth Genome. This tool will help local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) identify the best-bang-for-the-buck recharge options from a mix of different methods: via active cropland, fallow land, and/or dedicated recharge basins (picture massive, earthen bathtubs). Under California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, GSAs are tasked with implementing plans to keep regional groundwater basins in balance. Figuring out ways to regularly replenish and avoid over-pumping these subterranean stores will be critical to meeting State-mandated goals. Starting in spring 2017, the Madera and Tulare irrigation districts in California’s farm-rich San Joaquin Valley will field-test and refine the tool prototype to encourage wide-spread adoption in the future.
Increased pressure on our natural systems exacerbates the quandary of how we can best protect waterways and wildlife while ensuring sufficient water for farms and cities. Interested in solutions that lessen conflict over water and provide multiple benefits?
Check out our latest live stream recording featuring a lively exchange from a remarkable panel of leaders!
The presentation was organized by Sustainable Conservation and co-hosted by California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, California Water Institute at Fresno State, Central Valley Community Foundation, and the Maddy Institute.
“The Common Good: Working Together for a Secure Water Future” was recorded in Fresno, California, and includes great ideas and commentary from:
Our success in complex projects like our on-farm groundwater recharge initiative is driven by our powerful partnerships, innovative solutions, trusted leadership – and by supporters like you. With your help, we join hands with organizations as diverse as the Almond Board of California, UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lowe’s, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to turn big ideas for protecting our environment into reality. In the face of a changing climate, your contributions bolster California’s resilience as we build a sustainable water future for our state, together.
GOLDEN STATE SUSTAINERS: Monthly gifts are essential for helping us solve the toughest issues facing our land, air, and water. Have you considered joining our Golden State Sustainers? By making a monthly gift, you can help ensure a steady base of support for our work. Just indicate the amount you wish to contribute each month and we will set up automatic payments that are easy for you, and add up to big impact for California.