By the end of Friday’s meeting, attendees had received a solid overview of surface and groundwater rights in the Lower Mokelumne River Watershed. They also got an in-depth look at ongoing groundwater recharge projects, with the possibility for more in the future — if stakeholders can remove the obstacles in their way.
Meeting facilitator John Brodie went over some of the high points from that crash course:
• Finding new water to replace groundwater use is a no-go. There’s a finite supply of freshwater, and it’s all currently accounted for.
“We’ve allocated five times the amount of surface water that’s generally available, especially during drought years,” Brodie said.
• The State of California does not currently consider groundwater recharge a beneficial use. This ties the hands of water districts to start recharge projects with a lot of red tape. North San Joaquin Water Conservation District has the ability to work with landowners on recharge projects, but many local water districts do not.
One way around this would be to move levees farther inland to create flood zones, but this idea needs more investigation — and could be costly.
• Water conservation has been great for surface water, but has had unintended consequences for groundwater. As agriculture switched from flood irrigation to drip and sprinkler systems, they also relied more on water pumped out of the ground. This is one of the many factors that have played a role in the growing use of groundwater.
As local districts, growers and other stakeholders begin working out a plan that meets the State Groundwater Management Act’s requirements, they need to consider the long-term effects as well as the short-term, Brodie said.
“Think about the unintended consequences of some of these solutions,” he said.
That includes the quality of the water being used for recharge projects.
The goal is to avoid having to sit down again in 50 years, between a rock and a hard place.
So what concrete things can local stakeholders do, right now, to help keep the local watershed and groundwater basin healthy?
One piece of advice from panelists: Think big in the long term, but think small right now.
“We started looking at projects 10 years ago for North San Joaquin, and we’d get really really focused on doing one big project,” water rights attorney Jennifer Spaletta told participants last week. “You may be better off with a suite of smaller projects that are available at different times throughout the year.”
For water districts especially this is a good strategy, she said, since it allows flexibility and higher efficiency throughout the year.
But don’t sit around planning, either, the speakers warned.
Taking immediate steps, even small ones, is vital to getting the message out there and encouraging people to adopt new practices.
Dr. Toby O’Geen compared it to the Field of Dreams — if you build something, “they will come.” A project that only works a couple of months a year, like flood irrigation recharge in the fall and winter months, isn’t enough, but it’s better than nothing at all.
“We have to get this thread out all over,” he said.
One way to start small is working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was founded after Hugh Hammond Bennett and other USDA employees witnessed the devastating — and largely man-made — effects of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. It exists to help farmers and land and water managers do their jobs and get the most from their land without causing unnecessary damage to the natural world.
“Our job is mostly concerned with preserving natural resources on farmland,” state conservation engineer Greg Norris said earlier in the meeting.
While NRCS staff cannot help to plan private land recharge projects yet, they can sit down with growers to help develop some conservation strategies that address other issues — while also aiding in preserving or restoring groundwater.
For example, NRCS can help growers choose cover crops for their vineyards and orchards. Cover crops like mustard and vetch help prevent erosion and provide an additional food source for pollinators like bees and butterflies. However, they can also help soil retain moisture for longer, meaning growers can irrigate — and draw on groundwater tables — less frequently.
And when it comes to watershed coordinators for public cities and water districts, groundwater depletion is a topic the NRCS can tackle as part of an environmental evaluation.
Another option, of course, is to get involved with the local groundwater sustainability agencies. In the Lodi area, that means North San Joaquin Water Conservation District or the City of Lodi.
Volunteers can urge districts and pressure the state to look more closely at flood irrigation and other types of recharge projects as options for restoring shrinking groundwater tables.
“You have to pressure the state to change that,” Brodie said.
That goes beyond just pushing for recharge projects, he added. If the state is going to get involved in local water issues, local people need to be communicating with lawmakers in Sacramento to make it work.
“Work on your state elected officials to give you the tools that you need to help implement that local plan,” Brodie said.