Pilot project aims to divert excess water runoff potentially caused by massive Sierra snowpack

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Wednesday, April 5, 2023
Project aims to divert potential water runoff from Sierra snowpack
A Central Valley pilot project aims to divert excess water runoff that can be caused by this year's massive Sierra snowpack.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For most of California's history, a record snowpack in the Sierra has been like money in the bank -- filling reservoirs and keeping rivers healthy and flowing year-round. But in this era of climate change, there's a real concern that some of that precious water could slip through our fingers.

"If we get a very warm rain, or a series of warm rains -- if we get an extended period of warm weather, that's going to trigger the snowmelt and the flooding potential for the river," said Central Valley rancher Don Cameron.

Cameron runs the Terra Nova Ranch near Fresno. He's building a pilot project that could help reshape the way California manages and stores its Sierra runoff. It involves diverting excess water from the nearby Kings River through a network of canals to deliberately swamp his own fields.

"And so when the water comes, we will, as it is right now, we're filling up the canals. And we're pumping the water onto the fields, the open fields, and we're allowing the water to percolate down to the aquifer to start rebuilding the aquifer," he said.

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The technique is called groundwater recharge, and it's quickly expanding in different forms across the state. Recently Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority protected a large flood plain in Coyote Valley from development, in part, to help replenish the aquifer. While surrounding agencies like Valley Water operate sophisticated recharge systems that return treated wastewater into the ground. But with the prospect of a faster snow melt, there's a growing focus on using groundwater recharge as a kind of second reservoir system to capture and store as much runoff as possible. Karla Nemeth directs the California Department of Water Resources and says it's part of a complicated puzzle, to adapt the State's massive water system to climate change.

"How we build conveyance to make sure we can move water, where it needs to go, is going to be critical to meeting this extreme weather, this kind of weather whiplash, so we can capture it and store it, when we know the dry periods are going to return. And then groundwater is also crucial," says Nemeth.

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Last year ABC7 News profiled a futuristic survey program supported by the state. Researchers use spaceship like antennae to ping the ground with electromagnetic pulses. The goal, to uncover hidden pathways, that could carry seasonal runoff deep into the aquifer.

"So the work that we've been doing to essentially like take an MRI of the Earth, we basically measure down about 1000 feet, and we measure the resistance and we can profile the soil types," Nemeth said. "So when that snowmelt comes, we'll have mapping in place."

Recent studies have also suggested that flooding areas with the right kind of porous soil can capture water without harming crops. Back at the Terra Nova Ranch, Cameron believes the technique could also be critical for restoring over-pumped aquifers. Especially in areas of the Central Valley that are so dry, the ground is literally sinking.

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"We've been the example throughout the state on how to do it, and how you can flood some of the growing crops without damaging them and get this water stored in areas that have been over pumped, over-drafted over the years," he adds.

Governor Newsom has now issued an executive order that could help fast track the process. Potentially expanding California's water system in a new and resilient way. Tapping into an invisible network of natural underground reservoirs, to store water in a climate driven age, split between drought and downpours.

And the potential is vast. Some experts estimate that our groundwater basins can store at least three times as much water than our above ground reservoirs combined.

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