SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Mike Wackman is the general manager for the Omuchumme-Hartnell Water District. As a farmer, to see fields flooded is a sight to behold.
To replenish aquifers deep in the ground, Wackman has had to open caps to let stormwater pumped out of the river into the vineyard.
“At first they thought I was crazy when we started this, but we’ve got a lot more interest over the last three to four years, especially now that we have the project up and running,” Wackman said.
There is interest because of the state’s years of drought, which saw farmer heavily rely on groundwater in the aquifers.
Experts said on average we take an extra 2.6 million acre-feet of water out of the ground per year. From 2019 to 2021, it rose to 7 million acre-feet.
“In this area, we’ve seen groundwater aquifers be depleted over the past years. It’s actually sort of leveled off and we’re hoping to actually increase the level of those aquifers by this project,” Wackman said.
Wackman is working with several universities, including the University of California Davis, to study how fast and well recharging aquifers can happen when flooding fields. An important study according to professor Helen Dahlke because she said we’ve maximized surface level storage, and need to find a viable way to capture the millions of gallons pouring out of the atmospheric rivers, and that’s where agriculture land can help.
“Using farm fields is the cheapest method of how you can recharge the aquifer. Because it’s all gravity flow, you’re using an existing conveying system,” said professor Dahlke.
Dahlke said taking advantage and storing as much rain dumped from these atmospheric rivers is incredibly important as seasonal weather patterns are becoming less reliable.
“Our skills to predict climate are very poor. We can’t even predict the next six months. We predicted a dry winter for this year and yet we are looking at possibly the wettest winter in the last 100 years. So, how are we supposed to make plans around managing our resources if we don’t know if we are going to head into the next five-year drought?”
Both Dahlke and Wackman are glad to see the Gov. Gavin Newsom sign an executive order suspending the need for a permit to divert storm water runoff. Normally to use any of the excess water in the rivers you must have a winter permit to do so, which can take a long time to be approved and cost a considerable amount.
“The water districts that I know have applied for these permits, such as the 180-day temporary permit that divert high flows to underground storage, they all have a consulting firm, they all have a water lawyer who can help them with the paperwork. They submit these applications, they take on average four months to be reviewed and approved. There were eight applications submitted last year and none had been approved by mid-January,” said Dahlke.
For Wackman, he said the project has cost over a million dollars and so they are working on other methods to flood fields with no pump system.
“We are looking at possibilities of putting weir systems in, which means that as that river comes up it’s a controlled flood, so you control flooding it out of the river,” he said.
Wackman and Dahlke said many crops have the ability to withstand flooding to a certain point, and hope more areas employ this strategic conservation method.