Don Cameron sparked curiosity in 2010 when he began a multi-phase project intended to capture floodwater from the Kings River during rainy seasons.
The effort, supported by state grants, unfolded as a grand experiment, as the diversified Fresno County grower flooded his permanent plantings—including pistachios and vineyards—to such an extent that they soon rested in several feet of water.
To Cameron’s relief, those plantings survived relatively unscathed. As the water percolated down, the aquifer water table rose significantly, increasing nearly 40 feet in a single year.
In drought-parched California, with surface-water reservoirs badly depleted these days, storing groundwater is becoming a norm in California agriculture. It is viewed as a key tool to help sustain farming in times of diminishing resources.
Local agencies throughout the state must bring their aquifers into balance under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. As urgency builds, farmers are looking at myriad ways to store water beneath their feet.
Cameron, now president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, said sinking excess water on empty fields or in orchards gives the state’s farmers additional insurance against reduced snowpack, shrinking runoff and intense droughts interrupted by periods of volatile precipitation.
Sinking available water means it can be pumped out later, like making banking deposits and withdrawals.
“We are on the front lines of climate change,” Cameron said. “We see the changes in the weather before anyone else because it affects our crops. There is no happy medium anymore when it comes to rain events.”
Cameron has become a leading endorser of what is now known as on-farm recharge, or OFR. The program involves filling dedicated recharge basins or ponds, directing water to unlined canals and riverbeds, injecting it through wells, and using surface water supplies—when available—to avoid pumping.
Interest is growing in spreading water on productive and fallowed fields, in natural landscapes or in permanent plantings.
“Even though our groundwater has been over-pumped, it has created space to store water underneath our feet,” Cameron said during a recent tour of his 6,000-acre Terranova Ranch.
Groundwater is a major part of California’s water supply, providing close to 40% during wet years and up to 60% in dry years.
“On-farm recharge is the lowest cost option, and it’s highly expandable and flexible,” said Philip Bachand, an environmental engineer who designed Cameron’s project and is working throughout the state on other recharge systems. He added, “You don’t have to do much to your land; you just have to manage it.”
In May, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California embraced the concept in a policy brief, “Four Strategies for Managing California’s Crucial Watershed,” which urged the state to get better at storing water in wet years.
“Although droughts are getting more intense, wet years still occur, and they result in outflow well beyond what’s needed for salinity and species protections,” the brief stated. It added, “Modernizing our drought and wet-year management tools is the best way to ensure that not every dry period becomes an emergency.”
Alvar Escriva-Bou, a PPIC senior fellow, said groundwater recharge “is the only water supply that is quite affordable. The challenge is knowing how much is available.”
He said California storms come fast, and having the ability to store and move water to where it is needed most must be addressed.
“Most of the water comes in big gulps in specific places,” Escriva-Bou said. “When SGMA was enacted, we didn’t think much about recharge, and a lot of water was wasted. Now we have to rethink our reservoirs, canals and other ways we have to move water. From a regulatory standpoint, things need to be faster.”
State and federa l agencies are opening a wide variety of grant opportunities to encourage stakeholders to implement recharge methods.
The state budget in 2021 allocated $50 million for regional organizations working to reduce groundwater reliance through the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program.
Making the list of awardees was the Pixley Irrigation District GSA, located in the Tule Subbasin of Tulare County. This subbasin is designated as critically overdrafted by the state Department of Water Resources.
General Manager Eric Limas said he considers on-farm recharge a tool that is an “absolute necessity” for farmers and the water district. The district already has 1,000 square acre-feet dedicated to recharge, and more is in the works.
“If land has to come out of production for groundwater-management purposes, we want to be sure we focus on the most productive land and take out the least productive,” Limas said. “As a district, we are well-situated for recharge and opening up the opportunity for farmers to spread water on their fields and get credit for it.
“It is absolutely necessary to capitalize in wet years to get credit and pump it back out in dry years,” he added. “It helps us balance our water budget and is an absolute necessity in my mind.”
Located in the district, Mike Faria of Tipton is a third-generation dairy farmer and almond grower who has built a basin to recharge groundwater. Last December, when California received 6 inches of rain, he used the extra surface water to employ recharge on his row crop and silage fields of oats, alfalfa, corn and wheat.
“Before SGMA, there was not any incentive in our district to do any recharge because for farmers, pumping water was cheaper,” Faria said. “Now, if surface water comes, you’re a fool not to use it. We should have done this 20 years ago. Now, we’re totally set up for it.”
Meanwhile, Cameron in Fresno County completed the third phase of his on-farm recharge project. It added new canal alignments that connect with water sources and conveyance existing outside of the GSA’s boundaries.
This was possible in part due to the McMullin Area GSA, where Terranova Ranch is located, being awarded a $10 million grant from the California State Water Resources Control Board to expand the project, Cameron said. The local GSA is also in the preliminary phases of developing the Aquaterra Water Bank to increase water supply reliability for the region.
Additionally, the McMullin GSA plans to offer “On-Farm Recharge University” classes for its farmers, helping them to understand how much on-farm recharge costs in time and money.
Cameron said he hopes these developments will help Terranova Ranch continue producing its 25 conventional and organic crops.
“I want the farm to be here a long time,” Cameron said. “We know we will have floods again. It’s just a matter of time.
“Growers are aware of the situation and are willing to put money into infrastructure to find collateral to keep them farming,” he said. “Nobody wants to fallow productive farmland.”